Next week, a group of young people will be in Brazil trying their hardest to win gold medals for the UK. But the 41 competitors will not run, jump or throw their way to glory. Instead, they will be taking part in the WorldSkills 2015 competition in São Paulo, where they will demonstrate their prowess in trades such as floristry, jewellery and engineering.
This is the final stage of the competitors’ journey. They have already progressed through rigorous regional, national and international heats, and have undergone intensive specialist training in preparation for taking on more than 1,000 elite competitors from 60 countries.
The UK has a proud history of participating in skills competitions. The high point came when the biennial WorldSkills contest was held in London in 2011. The event led to the launch of the annual Skills Show, which hosts the national final of the WorldSkills UK contest.
And the benefits of such competitions are myriad, according to new research by Nigel Leigh, principal of Stephenson College in Leicestershire. His paper, presented to the annual conference of the Journal of Vocational Education and Training earlier this month, argues that all competitions – from internal college events and regional contests up to national and international shows – give a boost not only to the learners who take part but also to their teachers and institutions.
Competitions promote good practice by “strengthening the relationship between a vocational teacher and their students”, Leigh’s paper says, and “increasing the emphasis on ‘craft’ knowledge”. As one tutor puts it, skills competitions “benefit the ‘trade’, benefit the students, and boost morale for staff”.
Contests such as WorldSkills lead to “enhanced aspirations and self-esteem” among competitors, the report adds. Similarly, “opportunities to use skills competitions within further education colleges on a day-to-day basis…raise the self-esteem and confidence of students and vocational teachers”.
Carole Stott, chair of Find a Future – which runs WorldSkills UK and the Skills Show – agrees that such events have “enormous benefits” for all parties. “The main thing is that they are focusing on excellence,” she says. “It is about competing with the best in the country and then the best in the world. It also raises the profile of technical and vocational skills.”
Louisa Cooper, who will compete for Team UK in floristry in Brazil, has been training for two or three days every week to prepare for the competition. She says the experience has been transformational: “You get to do your best, you get to train with amazing people and travel, and it is an experience you would never otherwise get.”
Principals are also keen to extol the benefits of prestigious competitions. Marion Plant, principal of South Leicestershire College and North Warwickshire and Hinckley College, says that taking part raises the aspirations of individual learners beyond simply completing their course of study.
“Qualifications put a real ceiling on people,” she tells TES. “How can you go beyond that? Competitions are one of those ways. There is consistent evidence that those who take part in skills competitions have higher success rates.”
As a result, the two colleges have embedded skills competitions across the curriculum. Learners of all ages, from foundation level up to level 4, are encouraged to test themselves at college, local, regional and even national level.
“We do it because it sits at the heart of our teaching and learning strategy,” Plant says. “We had a look at global standards and how we could align our curriculum to the very best performers around the world. That has led to quite a few changes. We now offer internationally recognised accredited units.”
And the advantages of competition are not limited to students. Leigh’s research finds that staff also benefit. “Competitions help to develop relationships between teachers and students,” he says. “They also instil a sense of pride in a teacher’s skills and offer a way to deliver their programme.”
Plant agrees, adding that the competitions have brought “engagement and motivation” for staff at her colleges.
David McCay, a lecturer at North West Regional College in Northern Ireland, currently holds the voluntary position of deputy chief WorldSkills expert for wall and floor tiling. More than anything, the role has improved his own teaching practice, he says. “It has brought so much into my own work and the way I teach my own lessons. I might talk [to my learners] about better ways of doing a job that I saw at a competition in Denmark.”
But while the young competitors have unparalleled opportunities to travel the world, the demands on them are high. “The competitors have to give at least 90 days to train for WorldSkills; most people do a lot more,” McCay says. “That is the only way to compete at that level. Mo Farah doesn’t just rock up to run a race.”
Ben Pritchard, pictured, who will compete for Team UK in the jewellery competition at WorldSkills, certainly puts in the hours. He practises for contests long into the evening and regularly travels to training sessions with other jewellers in London. His employer, too – Emson Haig in Essex – has been supportive of his efforts.
But Pritchard feels the sacrifices will be worth it. “A UK competitor has not been in the top 10 in jewellery for 10 years, so that was my first aim, but I want to go there to win. I don’t think there is any point in going if you don’t think you can win gold,” he says.
Paul Little, principal of City of Glasgow College and lead champion for WorldSkills in Scotland, also insists that all the hours of hard training bring far-reaching benefits for competitors. “Taking part in such a renowned competition will help them to stand out in the competitive job market and remind employers of how devoted they are to developing their chosen expertise,” he says.
Irrespective of how they fare in São Paulo, the members of Team UK stand to feel the benefits for the rest of their careers.