Thu, 23 May 2019
Jo Lay, the new owner of GR Swimming Schools
When Jo Lay retired from the police force after 18 years, she intended to spend more time with her children. And it was this time at the swimming pool which led to her new passion – and career.
But when she left school at 18 years old, running her own business was the last thing she ever dreamt of doing.
Born in Grimsby, Jo and her family moved to Southend, Essex, when her father retired and decided to buy a guesthouse by the sea. She was eight years old.
“I have been pretty much working since then,” she laughs. “I used to clean, cook breakfast, change the sheets.
“Unfortunately, I did abysmally at school; I just don’t think I got it at the time.
“So the natural progression for me was to go to catering college when I was 16.”
Jo spent a year studying general catering at college, before getting a job at an Austrian restaurant.
The owner enabled her to continue her studying and she went on to become a classically-trained chef.
She then worked at a variety of restaurants across the South East, but her heart was always elsewhere – with the police force.
“I had always wanted to be in the police,” she explains.
“But my older sister was a police officer and she had been badly beaten up at a football match, so my parents tried to discourage me.
“But when I was working at a hotel in Gerrard’s Cross I began working as a Special.
“Then, on March 23, 1992, I joined Thames Valley Police.”
During her time in Thames Valley Police Jo worked across a number of departments.
“I was involved in the back end of the Newbury by-pass protests,” she says.
“Once that ended I was part of the dedicated team during the protests in Witney.
“I was then asked to start up a crime enquiries and victims’ office.
“During this time I put myself through a government IT course – I think I have got far more qualifications since leaving school than while I was actually there.
“After that I was asked to cover in the domestic violence unit for three weeks and I ended up staying for a few years.”
During this busy period in her working life, Jo had found the time to get married and have two children – a son and daughter.
After 18 years, she decided it was time to focus on the family and she retired as a police officer in 2008.
During a chat with a friend, who was also a swimming instructor teaching Jo’s children, the first seeds of a new idea were sown.
“She was getting disillusioned that things weren’t personal enough in the lessons anymore,” Jo explains.
“She was having a moan and said ‘it’s that easy even you could do it’ and next thing we were working out when I could get my swimming teacher qualifications.”
And so began a new phase in Jo’s life; one that has just seen her take control of GR Swimming Schools.
In 2013, Jo gained her first teaching qualifications with the ASA (Amateur Swimming Association, now known as Swim England) and continued to work with her friend’s swim school.
“It was great,” she says. “I was in the water, having fun, splashing around with the children.
“Half of it was swimming and half was showing them it is fun too.”
At the same time Jo and her daughter were studying French and one day she recognised a lady at the pool from the language classes.
They got chatting and the lady asked Jo to help out at her swim school too.
GR Swimming Schools was a family-run school with 30 years of experience teaching children to swim across Berkshire and Jo was happy to help out.
“For the staff it is like an extended family and I became really good friends with the owner,” she adds. “Things just blossomed from there.”
Last year the owner made the decision to retire and began to get Jo more involved in the behind-the-scenes administration of the business.
“I quickly realised it isn’t just about showing up at the pool,” she admits.
“The systems they used in the office had been finely honed over the years and they had a totally unique lesson structure that they had written themselves.
“I spent time learning the operational systems and the rationale for why things were and were not done.
“I helped out as a poolside helper too so I knew about every role and every aspect of the business.
“I began teaching some of the higher levels too as the previous owners started to take a step back.”
Jo has now bought the business and, although she says the previous owners are always on hand to offer advice, she is now beginning to put her own mark on it.
“For the main, the lesson structure is going to stay the same, because if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” she says.
“What they had was a business built over 30 years of experience.
“Behind the scenes things will change a bit as I move to a totally paperless system.”
The business continues to be family-run, with Jo’s children both working with her.
Some of the instructors also learnt to swim with the school too.
The lessons take place at St Andrew’s School, Pangbourne, The Downs School, Compton, and Brockhurst School, Hermitage, and currently see in excess of 300 children in the pool every week.
“The best bit about swim teaching?” Jo muses. “It is that moment when a child realises they can swim without any aids.
“Their faces light up and that is the best feeling in the world.
“They have placed their complete trust in you and that is a real privilege.”