Move over, celebs. Time for Air Academy

8th April 2011 at 01:00

Standing celebrities in front of a class and expecting them to be able to teach is not exactly an original televisual idea. Who can forget, for instance, Clare Short's faux pas when - turning up late to teach 3F - she explained that she couldn't get there earlier because she had to wash her hair?

But a lot was asked of Starkey, Campbell and co in Channel 4's venture into the genre - Jamie's Dream School. The teenagers they are required to control are all school drop-outs or expellees. They drink, fight, smoke, swear and throw such emotionally charged wobblers that even a squad of helmeted riot police would be hard pushed to restore order.

To anyone who works in FE, none of this will come as a surprise.

Unlike Jamie, we don't actually choose the mouthiest, stroppiest, most truculent teenagers to be our students. Sometimes, it seems, they choose us. When you specialise in those who, for one reason or another, didn't succeed at school, it's hardly surprising that they bring those reasons into the classroom with them.

Because we know the problems so well, we notice how familiar some of the "solutions" tried out at Dream School are, too: the target-setting, the learning plans, the contracts, the discussions, the meetings with parents and the long planning sessions of the "how can we make this more interesting" variety.

The difference, though, between Dream School and Real College is that in colleges we have a syllabus to deliver. And we can't come up with a bursary to send a student who has been good for two days off on a jolly to Arizona, either. Nor can we down tools and escape back to our well-heeled "real" existences after 45 minutes on camera.

Real College is our real life. And that reality confronts us daily with a range of challenges of which Jamie's celebrity workforce has no conception. How would Starkey and chums cope if, on top of dealing with a roomful of rowdy teenagers, they were also expected to struggle with an expanding workload, poor pay, professional marginalisation, rampant managerialism and, for the time being at least, the ever-present threat of redundancy.

But, hey, if I keep on like this, I'm in danger of turning into one of those "whingeing" teachers we hear so much about. Instead of just complaining, perhaps we ought to take the fight to them, to beat them at their own game.

What we need is a reality TV show of our own, where a team of top teachers can find out what it's like to be thrown in at the deep end of a different profession.

This is how it would work. We take a clutch of principals - say, those who run beacon colleges, because they're used to turning base metal into gold. Then we must add three or four "star" teachers - the ones we see every year being presented with their glittering prizes. Oh, and we'd better chuck in an Ofsted inspector or two for good measure - because surely they know all there is to know about the teaching game?

This band of educationists would then be faced with their ultimate challenge: appearing in Air Academy, otherwise known as Jamie's Nightmare Airline. Because just as academics and politicians can be teachers, so teachers can be airline pilots and stewards.

Obviously, we couldn't just send them in cold. They'd need at least a week's training in the flight simulator. And rather than a state-of-the- art Boeing, how about one of those clapped-out old Tupolevs you see on the fringes of eastern European airports?

And the passengers? Maybe a stag party or two, plus a contingent of Glasgow Celtic and Rangers fans. Now that would make a real programme!

Sadly, it's only ever going to last one episode, and that's if our Air Academy ever gets off the ground in the first place.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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