AFTER five years of stardom and acclaim, TV chef Jamie Oliver wanted to give something back.
That's why he made the courageous - some might say foolhardy - decision to take a team of 15 unemployed youngsters and train them to become top-class chefs at his stylish new London restaurant.
"Having not been the brightest banana in the bunch myself, I realised that my biggest weapon in life was the determination, enthusiasm, hands-on and 'actions-speak-louder-than-words' approach my father taught me," Oliver explained. "I wanted to get this across to others, especially those interested in food."
The resulting Channel 4 series, Jamie's Kitchen, made compelling viewing. TV viewers were gripped by the students' rocky progress through catering college to work experience at some of the best-known restaurants in the country and tuition from Oliver himself.
A follow-up programme on their careers is due for transmission this spring. Oliver admitted that teaching the youngsters how to cook wasn't "plain sailing". Far from it.
Some trainees had appalling attendance records, while others frequently turned up late. One boy was suspended and sent on an anger management course following a stand-up row with one of his college lecturers. One girl refused point blank to eat raw fish when Oliver asked her to, while another went AWOL for days on end.
Until a few months ago I would have been stunned by the indolence of Oliver's trainees. Now, after three months of teaching English language and media studies at my local FE college, it seems a familiar story. As a journalist studying for a PGCE in post-compulsory education, I was warned not to expect every student to be motivated and keen as mustard simply because they happened to be over 16 and didn't have to be there. But I had no idea they'd be so idle.
The classes I teach are small - 11 at most. On a one-to-one basis, most of the students, who range from teenagers straight out of school to 20 and 30-somethings juggling part-time jobs with their studies, are delightful.
But there hasn't been a single session when everyone has turned up. Even those who do get there invariably arrive late. A fellow lecturer confided that he'd had to change a 9am start on a Monday to 9.30am because so few of his students seem able to get out of bed. As for doing homework or handing in assignments on time, forget it.
One week I asked a group of HND students to write out a sample job-application letter. By the next session, a week later, just two out of 11 had done it. The rest were given yet another week to complete the work, which was hardly taxing. Even then, only another two managed it, and one of those claimed he'd left it at home by mistake. Not an impressive tally.
Then there was the occasion when two teams of media students assembled for the grand showing of two short films they'd produced as part of their coursework. The minutes ticked by and still there was no sign of the second team. It was 20 minutes before they finally rushed in blaming faulty equipment for their late appearance.
At this, the usually calm head of department exploded. And justifiably so. Many of these students hope to work in the media when they graduate. How they can expect to gain employment in a highly competitive industry when they don't complete their work on time is beyond me. News editors and film directors won't brook bad timekeeping and unreliability, no matter how brilliant the work is.
Astonishingly, instead of apologising for the delay and promising it wouldn't happen again, one student began arguing with the head of department. The way he saw it, he was paying good money to do the course so blow the deadline; he reckoned he should be allowed more time to create his masterpiece.
Despite the setbacks, 12 of Jamie Oliver's 15 trainees survived the course and are now cooking with great aplomb at his restaurant. After months of "bunking off", refusing to do as they were told and arguing with head chefs, even the truants knuckled down and made the most of their big chance.
Whether the students I've met do the same remains to be seen.