From fighter jets and field ops to a life in education

4th March 2016 at 00:00
Military trainees and FE students are remarkably similar, says one RAF pilot turned college principal

I left the RAF last May after 32 years, most of it flying fast jets. I’m now the principal of Peterborough Regional College. It’s been quite a culture shock. I’ve been reflecting on the main differences between working in these two quite different worlds. So my only qualification for writing this article is my inexperience. If that hasn’t put you off, here are some thoughts on the FE sector from a newcomer’s perspective.

Adapting to change

FE is adaptable – it has successfully absorbed more assaults on its funding and structures than any other part of the education sector. How? This is my theory: on a typical day, I speak with tutors and managers who are former accountants, rugby players, chefs, engineers, nurses, police officers, hairdressers, welders, bricklayers, car mechanics and musicians. There’s even a sailor.

Contrast this with the armed forces, which promotes all its leaders from within. This gives them certain strengths, but they sometimes struggle to achieve change unless directed from the top down. It’s not only the strongest of a species that survives, but the most adaptable. FE is the most adaptable species within education, and that comes from diversity in recruitment.

Challenges in education beyond FE will not be addressed effectively by silver bullets such as the Troops to Teachers scheme. We need former members of the armed forces in education, but we need people from every other aspect of working life, too.

Solid training matters

There are some things that the military does better than the FE sector. The most obvious example is CPD. Every time I was promoted into a new role in the RAF, I benefited from dedicated professional training beforehand. Military officers undertake a through-life programme of CPD that prepares them for senior rank, stretches them intellectually and grades them against the brightest of their peers. For example, the advanced staff course is a nine-month residential that contains international, political and academic elements.

Contrast this with the experience of managers within FE. There are courses, and many are good quality, but we promote those who are good at their current role and expect them to sink or swim with their new responsibility. This practice is puzzling to me, especially given our educational mission. Are we “too cool for school” or is it a result of the labour market that puts investment in CPD at risk?

I think that the answer lies in a combination of professional frameworks, amortisation requirements for training and collaboration. If I pay for a manager to develop and they subsequently amortise their training and move to another college to broaden their experience, should I worry? No, provided there is a balancing flow from elsewhere, which there will be if we collaborate more.

Duty to the next generation

The military inducts 16- to 25-year-olds, gives them an academic grounding and then conducts hands-on training and assessment. The learners have shorter hair and cleaner shoes but, beyond that, they are remarkably similar to their civilian counterparts (for starters: their music’s too loud, has no tune to it and you can’t understand the words).

Like all youngsters, military learners need clear instructions, motivation, support and understanding tutors. They can delight and amaze you one moment and disappoint you the next. They’re people.

The systems that we construct to deliver education and training are identical inside and outside the military. Moreover, those who teach are bound by a common mission: to prepare the next generation. The relationship between a flying instructor and his student begins as one of complete dependence, but once the basic skills are learned it becomes a migration of experience – preparing them for the shocks and challenges ahead. When I walk through Peterborough Regional College, I see exactly the same process in play and exactly the same dedication to learners.

Terry Jones is principal of Peterborough Regional College

CV: Terry Jones

1983 Joined RAF as a pilot, aged 18

1995 Qualified as a flying instructor, RAF Central Flying School

2001 MA in defence studies, King’s College London

2002-2005 Head requirements manager, UK Military Flying Training Systems project team – defined the requirements of a £3.2 billion project to update training aircraft, simulators and infrastructure

2005-2007 Tornado squadron commander, leading a 12-aircraft squadron with 180 staff in worldwide combat operations

2007-2010 Deputy director, Ministry of Defence – strategic planning and procurement, leading upgrades to Tornado GR4 and test and evaluation of the new F-35 Lightning II

2010-2012 Station commander – led three RAF stations with eight flying units and 1,200 personnel

2012-2015 Director of flying training in the RAF – responsible for all formal military flying training in the RAF, Royal Navy and Army, including the Red Arrows

2015-present Principal and chief executive of Peterborough Regional College

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