Competitive spirit gives skills a lift

The competitiveness agenda is beginning to come to the fore - competitiveness in business will help to ensure that the UK stays in the highest league of wealth-creating economies.

But how can competitiveness in business be achieved if the individuals within that organisation have limited or no experience of competing and remain untested undder pressure? It seems we no longer deem it either fashionable or useful to encourage our young people to want to compete. Yet life, especially working life, will be full of situations that are challenging and it pays to be prepared for them.

For a long time, UK Skills has been championing the cause of the skills "competition". Taking part in skills competitions offers a whole range of benefits; improving personal development - boosting self-esteem and motivation, offering the chance to experience working under pressure. It also enables learners to see excellence in action, and gives them the opportunity to compare and perfect skills against their peers. Skills competitions help to create a climate where "striving for excellence" is considered the norm. This is exactly the attitude we want to encourage - in today's highly competitive world being competent is not good enough.

There is a real lack of top-class skills in certain areas of our workforce and the current system of NVQs alone is not able to produce a world-class workforce. Of course, NVQs were not designed to do this in the first place.

There is a real need to encourage students to stretch and grow, and we need to have a system which allows us to do that. As a country, though, we need to be encouraging and promoting excellence.

At UK Skills, we do not see competition as a dirty word. Instead, we think young and old should be encouraged to take part in competitions and to strive to be the best in what they do. Giving young people first-hand experiences of excellence in their education and training does improve their performance.

Research conducted by UK Skills and the Learning and Skills Development Agency set out to explore the factors that nurture young people's talent and enable every one of them to exceed beyond their expectations. We defined a curriculum for excellence that is eminently feasible within the normally available resources. Within this curriculum, we found many ways of incorporating and demonstrating excellence, including competitions. The findings showed that a curriculum for excellence can act as a catalyst for young people and encourage them to persevere and achieve higher goals. A clear message is that setting high standards for all can have positive effects on young people's technical skills, motivation and confidence.

The Government's skills strategy (launched in July 2003) sets out a national plan for enhancing Britain's supply of high-level skills as well as tackling the skills shortages that currently remain in the UK. But there is still much to do. The problem seems to be two-fold: we have a lack of people with high-level skills and at the same time a belief that vocational skills are somehow second rate to their academic counterparts. We believe that skills competitions can help tackle both these problems. Skills competitions allow us to differentiate performance, thus encouraging excellence. The more excellence we can celebrate in the vocational skills arena, the better the public's perception.

We believe in competitions to such an extent that we have submitted an expression of interest to host the WorldSkills Competition in the UK in 2011. WorldSkills is the biggest such competition in the world and is held every two years in one of its member countries. It sets world-class standards in more than 40 skill categories ranging from cabinet-making to web design. Over four days of tough competition, young people from 42 member nations test themselves against tough international standards. The ultimate prizes are gold, silver and bronze medals.

Hosting the competition would help to enhance dramatically the value which we as a nation place on skills. The WorldSkills competition has the potential to generate the levels of interest and excitement needed to bring about a step change in perceptions. Every year we have the annual ripping open of the A-level results but there is no similar celebration for vocational skills. It is about time we recognised and celebrated vocational skills. Crucial to the success of the UK's bid to host the competition is the support that we receive from the public, the training sector and business.

Dr Graeme Hall is chief executive of UK Skills

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