Pilot turned principal is off to a flying start

9th October 2015 at 00:00
Serving in Afghanistan inspired Terry Jones to swap his stellar RAF career for a more grounded role as a college leader

When you walk into the office of Terry Jones, the new principal of Peterborough Regional College, one of the first things to catch your eye is a dagger mounted on the wall.

It’s a far cry from the usual framed Investors in People award. But then Jones doesn’t have a typical principal’s CV. He has spent the past 32 years in the RAF, after joining to train as a pilot at 18 and rising to the rank of air commodore. In his final RAF role, he was responsible for all formal flying training in the British military, including for the world-famous Red Arrows display team.

The dagger, Jones says, is a memento of his time as a Tornado squadron leader. It is one half of a squadron badge that also features a lynx’s head. The sharp-eyed lynx symbolises the squadron’s reconnaissance role, while the dagger represents its exacting standards. “When we strike, we do it with precision,” Jones explains.

So what makes a former fighter pilot want to run a further education college? His education and training background in the RAF is a factor, Jones explains, but he was also inspired by his experiences serving in Afghanistan.

“I saw what people were going through to access education and the risks that they were running – it was kind of an awakening for me,” he says. “When you looked at what was happening in the space where we created safety and security, the most powerful force was education by a country mile.”

Taliban attack

Jones describes a school in a village north of Kandahar, which came under attack by the Taliban. Children were targeted by improvised explosive devices rigged at chest height, but only one of the detonators went off, injuring one child.

“You would probably think that would bring education at that place to a stop, that the parents wouldn’t risk sending their children back there in future,” he says. “But the reverse was true. They were back there within a week, running that risk. Because they know…that social progress and education are bound up together. That made a deep impression on me.”

The FE system, too, has made a strong impression on Jones since he began his new role in the summer. Moving to Peterborough, he found that almost everyone he met had a connection to the college. “It’s physically in the heart of the city but it’s in the front of people’s minds as well,” he says. “Everybody has either been here or knows somebody that’s been here.”

Despite his background, Jones has no plans to apply stereotypical notions of military discipline to education. “I’m not one of these people who subscribes to ‘we want discipline in the classroom, so bring military people in’. I think that’s just way, way too simplistic,” Jones says.

‘Embracing technology’

In fact, training in the military isn’t as much about old-fashioned virtues as it may seem. A second picture on Jones’ wall illustrates the point. It shows Hawk aircraft on a training exercise, but the scene the pilots are dealing with is very different from the serene landscape ahead of them, because simulation software on their instrument displays is generating mock enemy attacks.

Military training today is defined by high-tech approaches, adaptive learning styles and close mentoring, Jones says. “When you come in from the military, people are expecting an authoritarian, non-consultative, command-led approach, but that’s not really how we work any more,” he adds. “We’ve embraced technology to a huge extent, we’ve also adapted our learning style because people learn in different ways and you can’t just ram the same old techniques down people’s throats and expect the same results.”

The approach was driven by something FE colleges will recognise: budget restrictions. The RAF needed to make training more cost-effective, and computer simulations – often based on video game technology – enabled more practice for less money.

A third picture on the wall illustrates another trend common to both the RAF and colleges. It shows a Second World War Lancaster bomber with a crew of about 180 in the air and on the ground. Jones contrasts this with the modern equivalent – a team of just six. If that seems ominous for staff jobs, Jones is upbeat. He says college recruitment is strong, owing to Peterborough’s rising population. “The demand is there,” he adds.

The college is reviewing ways of increasing and diversifying its income, such as reintroducing A-levels alongside new agriculture courses, increasing international provision and offering online learning. Expanding apprenticeships has proved to be a challenge with smaller businesses in the region, but the college could look to develop its engineering expertise with a large, national enterprise, Jones explains.

And while expanding at a time of funding cuts may appear to be a tough ask for a first-time principal, Jones has form in this area. In the RAF, he had to maintain educational provision while cutting £20 million from a £195 million budget.

But this was a piece of cake compared with his biggest challenge. In 2012, Jones took over as director of flying training, a role that included overall responsibility for the Red Arrows at a time when the team had been hit by tragedy. The year before, two pilots had been killed in accidents within three months of each other – the first fatalities since 1988.

Jones rebuilt the team and transformed the safety and maintenance training regime, eventually getting the go-ahead to restore the iconic “diamond nine” formation, which had been suspended in the wake of the incidents.

He describes Red Arrows training as a painstaking process. Pilots go from practising solo to working in small formations, gradually building up to complex aerobatics involving all nine aircraft. “It’s building blocks,” he says. “It’s like any education or training – there’s nothing magical or different about it.

“You can get to 90 per cent of the level they need to be at in about 50 per cent of the time. That last 10 per cent takes another 50 per cent of the time. And that’s what makes [the Red Arrows] the best team in the world.”

CV: Terry Jones

2015 Principal, Peterborough Regional College

2012 Director of flying training, RAF

2010 RAF station commander

2007 Deputy director, Ministry of Defence

2005 Tornado squadron commander

2002 Head requirements manager, UK Military Flying Training System project team 2001 MA in defence studies, King’s College London

1995 Qualified as a flying instructor, RAF Central Flying School

1983 Joined the RAF to train as a pilot, graduating in 1986

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