Harvey McGavin flies west to find out how an aircraft refitting project is helping students reach the heights
Learning resources don't come much bigger than the main hangar at British Aerospace's Bristol plant. The first Concorde was built in this cavernous space, which now houses four huge passenger jets, partially dismantled and girdled with scaffolding as they await a refit.
They are here, as BAe technical training manager Roland Keedwell explains, for the aeronautical equivalent of an MOT. "These planes have done, on average, 48,000 landings, and have come to the end of their flying life," he tells a group of visiting schoolchildren. "In aircraft terms, they are totally cream-crackered."
But putting them back in the air is a lot more expensive and time-consuming than getting an old banger back on the road. It costs around pound;3 million to make each of these machines fit to fly again. If you've got the money, it's a shrewd investment - the value of a clapped-out airliner can soar from pound;15 million to around pound;80 million with a top-notch refurbishment.
But it's a highly specialised job, requiring 40,000 labour hours over a tight six-week schedule, and, as a group of business and economics students from Ralph Allen School in Bath is about to find out, planning and teamwork are everything.
Having toured the hangar, learned some mind-boggling facts (a jet turbine can suck up a rabbit from 200 yards) and seen the refurbishers in action, they are about to take part in a simplified version of the refit as part of their Nuffield-BP business and economics GCSE.
In the BAe education centre, the students are split into groups of six and each given a job - hydraulic engineer, structural engineer, multi-skilled engineer, electrician, cutter and observer.
They then have 15 minutes to service their "plane" - or rather to rearrange the objects on and around a table. With the chairs acting as wing supports (only one can be removed at a time), the team has to rewire and reinforce the plane with masking tape and cotton, referring to the manual handed to them at the start of the exercise.
The activity was devised by their teacher, Neil Reaich, after he attended a teacher placement at the factory. BAe's education resource centre, run with the business links organisation Learning Partnership West, offers curriculum-related visits to everyone from five-year-old primary schoolchildren to further education classes and teachers.
During his four-day placement, Neil Reaich spotted a recurring theme, prompting him to design the plane maintenance game. "All the time I was here people were talking about efficiency," he says. "Few textbooks dealt with that, and I wanted to show the children its importance and the value of doing quality work as a team. "Bath is short of industry so it's good to come to a big business like this. The children like it because it's real and about live issues."
The role-play refurbishment - a kind of competitive party game - aims to show students some of the priorities involved in the real world of business. Working to schedule is crucial if the company isn't to lose money - teams are docked points for every minute they over-run their allotted time, and fined for mistakes. Attention to detail and health and safety are also emphasised.
The exercise is typical of the approach of the Nuffield-BP GCSE in business and economics. The qualification was introduced two years ago and around 5,000 pupils will sit the first examinations this summer.
Jenny Wales, co-director of the Nuffield project and chair of the Economics and Business Education Association, says the course aims to be practical and relevant, and to take a less theoretical look at the commercial world than its single-subject counterparts.
"It's active, investigative learning, using a lot of up-to-date companies that are familiar and appealing to the students," she says. (Case studies feature such well-known names as Swatch, Next and Psion.) Jenny Wales admits the take-up rate (more than 170 schools) has surpassed expectations, and believes the contemporary feel of the new combined qualification will win yet more converts.
"The concept is to start with the real world and develop the theory from that, rather than the other way around. We want students to ask, 'What does business do and how does it do it?'" Further details from Nuffield Curriculum Projects. Tel: 0171 436 4512. Fax: 0171 436 1869