Catering lecturer updates her skills in TV chef's kitchen under Northern Ireland scheme. Martin Whittaker reports
It doesn't get hotter in the kitchen than when you're working for chef Gordon Ramsay.
Catering lecturer Paula McIntyre admits that she found the prospect of a week's work placement in Mr Ramsay's three-Michelin-star restaurant in Chelsea somewhat daunting.
"I was completely terrified," she said. "I don't think there is anything I have ever done that I was so scared about.
"I hadn't worked in a kitchen for three years. I was terrified that I was going to be in this environment that was put across on television as completely macho. But I wanted to do it for myself."
She needn't have worried. TV's most challenging chef was away and his staff were as nice as pie. And the experience proved invaluable when she returned to her level 3 (A-level equivalent) catering students at the Causeway Institute of Further and Higher Education in Northern Ireland.
Soon, they were dishing up their own versions of Mr Ramsay's recipes in the college canteen. "My attitude to teaching is that I want those students to go out after two years with me and be able to hold their heads up in a Michelin-star restaurant," she said.
Ms McIntyre, 39, took the placement as part of Northern Ireland's Lecturers Into Industry programme. The scheme is designed to help college staff update their skills and experience. The programme has been running in Ulster for seven years and is open to all lecturers, managers and technicians in the province's 16 FE colleges. So far, more than 200 have taken part.
A similar scheme is to be put to the test in England next year, with 12 lecturers from colleges and school sixth forms. It was started by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, in Belfast. Surveys had highlighted the need for closer links between colleges and employers, and found that many lecturers had not worked in industry for some time.
The programme began with the hospitality and engineering industries, which are major employers in Northern Ireland. Colleges pay one-fifth of the cost of cover while the rest comes from government funding of around pound;200,000 a year.
Staff spend up to a term on placements and have to undertake a project that develops skills and knowledge to support their teaching. An early evaluation of the scheme by PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that, while it provided valuable staff development tool, and feedback was generally positive, only a few staff were taking part.
Trevor Carson, director of LSDA Northern Ireland, said: "In general they were very keen but, like a lot of teachers and lecturers, the thought of leaving their classes for 12 weeks was a bit of an obstacle."
The survey also found the availability and quality of substitute cover caused disruption in some colleges. Overall, though, Mr Carson declared it a "win-win programme", giving lecturers hands-on and in-depth experience and fostering new ideas and co-operation between FE and industry.
Today, the scheme operates in industries including construction, software engineering, bio-sciences, motor vehicles, health and social care, creative technologies and business IT.
The North East Institute in Ballymena has put 34 of its lecturers through the scheme. It has helped the college become a centre of vocational excellence in engineering and the built environment.
Principal Trevor Neilands said an initial reaction centred around the difficulty in releasing staff. But senior management at his college had been forward-thinking. "If the will is there to make constructive and positive use of a scheme like this, any apparent difficulty can be overcome with proper planning," he said.
It has been worth the effort, he said. The college now works much more closely with industry, to the point where it is now offering customised training.
Engineering and computing lecturer Bill Watson did his placement at the international engineering company Ryobi, which makes car components. He designed training programmes to help workers operate and maintain robots.
His college is now offering higher national diplomas in robotics and is giving bespoke training to a host of companies in Northern Ireland.
"It had a lot of very successful outcomes," he said. "The company doesn't experience anywhere near as many problems as they did and they have become more efficient."
The extra training has been financially rewarding for the college, he said.
"We do it at a vastly reduced rate to what the company would get from the supplier. We're local, we're cheaper and we're able to give them actual bespoke training in robotics."