Gerald Haigh meets a teacher who knows the real meaning of war.
Nicky Edwards is a real high-flyer. Not the ambitious, threshold-crossing variety that so captivates Tony Blair and David Blunkett; her elevated status is more literal. As well as being a Year 5 teacher at Church Crookham junior school near Fleet in Hampshire, Nicky Edwards is also a flight lieutenant in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. On many weekends, and for a fortnight each year, she puts on her uniform and reports for duty with 4626 (County of Wiltshire) Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, based at RAF Lyneham, near Swindon. From here, Hercules transport planes fly to and from the Falklands, the Gulf and the Baltic states.
If you ever visit a Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadron - or a Territorial Army unit for that matter - don't go over to the piano and invite everyone to join in a chorus of "Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler". Squadron leader Peter Walden Hughes, Nicky Edwards's flight commander, says: "It's not a Dad's Army outfit. It's not playing, or weekend soldiering, or a social club. As the armed services get smaller, the reserves become more important." (He should know. Now a higher education lecturer, and still serving in the RAuxAf in his sixties, Peter Walden Hughes joined the RAF as a boy apprentice in 1955 and did 39 years as a regular.) Nicky Edwards is deadly serious about what she does. She holds the Queen's Commission in a unit whose purpose is to save lives by ensuring that wounded servicemen and women are brought back to UK hospitals quickly and efficiently from wherever in the world there is conflict (squadron motto, tute domum - "safely home").
In battle, 4626's doctors and nurses will receive patients from field hospitals and check they are stable for the journey. Nicky Edwards and her admin people will then arrange for their flight home.
Flt Lt Edwards joined the RAF as a graduate, and served for six years as an administrative officer at home and abroad, rising to her present rank and meeting her husband (still a regular officer) on the way. When her service was coming to an end, she decided to become a teacher, and, still in Germany, she took her PGCE with the Open University, completing her teaching experience in service schools. She started teaching in 1997, working for two terms as cover for the teaching head of a small schoool in Dorset. She took up her present post in autumn 1998.
What do her colleagues and pupils think of what she does? "The children think it's cool," she says. "Before I went for my two weeks' training last year I sat them down and talked to them. They were very interested."
Watching her at work in a busy squadron office, in camouflage combat gear, similarities to the job of teaching a primary school class are not obvious. But she insists the two sides of her life complement each other. "The RAF taught me to be a manager - of people, time and resources," she says. "That would have stood me in good stead whatever I chose to do." So, for example, she had no qualms about taking a leading role in her school's residential trip to the New Forest. "It was very much like going away with the squadron." Some of her RAF training in instruction has proved useful, too.
"They were very good on questioning techniques," she explains. "And that's useful, particularly with the emphasis on whole-class teaching." There are other, more personal points of contact. "This term in school we are taking part in Love in a Box, a scheme in which children put gifts in shoe boxes to send to Kosovo. I'll be able to say I've been on the receiving end of their presents, distributing them. I can explain how the children there enjoy the boxes and how moving it is." She also likes to take part in the Remembrance Day assembly. "It's a special time for us in the services."
At the other end of the equation, she is adamant that her teaching experience helps her work with the squadron. "Learning how to do parent teacher interviews, setting targets for children and giving them the strategy for the next half term - all of it has a knock-on effect when it comes to doing the confidential reports for the people I am responsible for in the squadron. Discussing specific strategies at school with parents and children helps me to be specific with the people here."
There is, of course, a price to be paid in terms of commitment. Teachers already work hard in their own time, and you wonder how Nicky Edwards fits everything in.
"I'm an organised person," she says. "Three of us take turns in the planning for our year group. When there's a weekend away coming, I try to make sure the two don't coincide. Then I have to make sure that before I leave on Friday I'm ready for Monday."
She explains that while many of her RAF colleagues arrive for training on the Saturday morning, she will have travelled down on the Friday evening and will do school work in her room or in the mess.
"And when there's a coffee break," she says, "they might find me sitting in a corner marking some maths books."
Perhaps the biggest professional benefit for Nicky has been the broadening of experience. Still in her early thirties, and still a new teacher, she has been to the Falklands, and to Sarajevo, and regularly works with men and women from every conceivable walk of life, in a job that could at any time become a deadly reality.
Teachers need what former cabinet minister Lord Healey called "a hinterland", a life away from the classroom. To sit with Nicky Edwards in the officers' mess is to realise she has something that will equip her for whatever school and the Department for Education and Employment can throw at her.
REACHING FOR THE SKIES
* The Royal Auxiliary Air Force, which celebrated its 75th anniversary on October 9, provides a pool of trained units and people who can be sent to a conflict at short notice.
* There are 20 RAuxAF units covering duties ranging from airfield defence to aeromedical evacuation and helicopter support.
* RAuxAF people come from all walks of life. Their civilian status may differ markedly from their service rank - a man or woman in a junior rank may turn out to be a senior manager during the week, for example.
* The commitment is for 15 days' continuous training each year (which may be overseas) plus at least six weekends.
* Pay is at the same daily rate as a regular of the same rank. There is a tax-free annual bonus of between pound;300 and pound;1,050 depending on length of service.
* You have to be between 17 and 50, and undergo a medical examination and a test of physical fitness.
* Fifteen days' basic training is given on entry.
* Fancy being an officer? Many RAuxAF officers are ex-regulars. Others can apply for commissions after joining.
* Write to: deputy inspector (recruiting), Royal Auxiliary Air Force, 25 Learmouth Terrace, Edinburgh EH4 1NZ. Tel: 0131 332 1267. Website: www.rauxaf.mod.uk