Teachers from industry: Voices of experience

Nothing beats industry know-how for teaching vocational skills. Virginia Matthews meets the experts

Ronnie Wyatt-Goodwin, hospitality manager at South East Essex College (SEE), has no doubt why 100 per cent of his catering student alumni are in employment – some of them at top-class establishments such as the Savoy and the House of Commons. His own 22 years in industry – during which he worked as a sous-chef at the Dorchester in Mayfair and head chef at the Royal Horseguards in Whitehall – as well as the college's extensive links with local employers mean that when it comes to working in a real kitchen, SEE students tend to have their pick of jobs.

Indeed, far from being isolated in academic ivory towers, many lecturers in FE colleges have substantial industry experience to draw on and many of them continue to work part-time as well as teach. Not only does this ensure that their knowledge of fast-moving subjects such as media or computing is kept fresh, up-to-date and relevant to today's employment market, but it can also mean that students have access to valuable contacts when they are looking for work.

Whether future career plans revolve around hotels, restaurants, pubs, clubs or events management, all students at SEE studying in hospitality or catering get the opportunity to sharpen their culinary and hospitality skills by working in "Ora" – an on-campus, full-service brasserie that attracts real paying customers from the Southend area.

While the trainee commis, sous-chefs or chefs de partis are spared the public humiliation of the TV show Hell's Kitchen – where the weakest are publicly sacked – the experience of cooking "live" for hungry diners inevitably helps to sharpen up skills.

"It's all very well teaching cookery students how to make a pint of Bechemal sauce," says Wyatt-Goodwin. "But when they get into industry, they'll be asked to make five or 10 gallons of it at a time."

"We hope that by giving our students real experience of front-of-house or kitchen life – either in our own restaurant or via the part time jobs that most of them take in the local area – we can rid them of that 'rabbit in the headlights' look when they take up their first full-time job," he adds.

When it comes to the fast-moving world of IT, staying ahead of emerging industry trends is vital, says Kumar Sinha, IT lecturer and course leader on the new computing foundation degree on offer at East Berkshire College.

A former hardware and software developer for major multinational IT clients, Sinha now combines teaching with running his own specialist software company. "It's important that the students have a role model who has direct industry experience and who can help them relate the theoretical side of their course to real business examples. Students need to understand for instance why it is that poor management can mean up to 75 per cent of business IT projects failing to reach delivery on time, and they can only do that if there are real companies to examine."

When it comes to securing work for students, Sinha believes that old-fashioned networking is an important tool. "The team behind the new foundation degree are working hard to forge links with local businesses and when it comes to working, my fellow teachers and I will be hoping to put our local contacts to good effect."

John White turned to teaching after 25 years as a bricklayer. Now senior practitioner in vocational education at Lewisham College, he helps train school leavers and apprentices in the ways of the modern building site. "I was horrified to encounter one construction lecturer who talked in terms of feet and inches and I vowed that my students would always be kept up to date with how the trade is today," he says.

The drive for a more diverse mix of workers in construction has been significantly helped by technological advances in brick manufacture and White is keen to explain this to students. "In the old days, it was difficult for women to become what's still known as a 'hoddie' on many sites," he says.

"Today, the material used to make bricks is much lighter, making it possible to more women to join up, but you wouldn't necessarily know that unless you'd been on a site recently," he adds.

White insists that all his lecturers keep their practical skills up to scratch with regular bouts of work and although he himself already puts in the hours on building sites twice a month, he'd like to do more. "It's only by working that you get to make contacts and many of my old bricklaying chums are still doing the same job now; albeit as foremen or directors of their own firms. I regularly use my contacts to get my students work experience or jobs and I'm pleased to do so."