Walking around the enormous exhibition halls hosting EuroSkills 2018 in Budapest a few weeks ago, it was plain to see that, when it comes to international skills competitions, the Russians mean business.
Not only did the host nation for next year’s WorldSkills put up a thoroughly impressive stand to advertise the 2019 competition in the city of Kazan, it also had its own special media area and a large delegation. The Russian competitors, along with the team of experts supporting them, certainly perfected a facial expression that said: “I am here to win gold”.
There was certainly some pressure on Russia, one of the more recent additions to the WorldSkills family, to succeed. In recent years, Russia has carried out a radical overhaul of its skills system – at the heart of which are the WorldSkills international benchmarks.
Ignored by policymakers
“When Russia joined WorldSkills in 2012, we were in a place where our technical and vocational education and training system was not having a lot of attention from policymakers, from industry and even educators themselves,” said the country’s official WorldSkills delegate, Ekaterina Loshkareva.
“It was something nobody talked about. So, when we joined our first competition as a team in Leipzig in 2013, we came almost last. It was shocking, because our trainers and experts had been sure we were training the best of the best. When we came back with that horrible result, it was like a cold shower for the system.”
This triggered an intense five-year programme of embedding WorldSkills standards into the Russian further education system. “They basically became the national standard,” Loshkareva said. “We also introduced national training centres, and trainers and students can come there and study excellence. We then started our line of [national] competitions in line with WorldSkills competitions.”
Lucrative cash prizes
Individuals are prepared for WorldSkills through a programme of domestic competitions and intensive training. In some industries, medal hopefuls are sent to train in established WorldSkills superpower South Korea, while others attend training camps at home in Russia. “Government pays for the training of the national team, because it is a question of how they represent their country,” Loshkareva explained.
Lucrative cash prizes are also on offer for competitors who excel in WorldSkills and EuroSkills; Loshkareva is tight-lipped about the exact sums on offer, but these are believed be worth tens of thousands of pounds for the top performers.
And the support does not end straight after the medal ceremony: competitors are given assistance in finding work – usually in industry, as entrepreneurs or in training the next generation of WorldSkills competitors.
UK catching up?
While the UK clearly has some catching up to do if it is to keep pace with the emerging breed of new global skills superpowers, progress is being made.
Recent reforms of apprenticeships, and the planned T levels – technical qualifications designed to offer a prestigious alternative to A levels, due to be introduced in 2020 – have opened up new opportunities, according to Ben Blackledge, director of education and skills competitions at WorldSkills UK.
Competition standards can be incorporated into the end-point assessments of apprenticeships, Blackledge suggests, and time spent in competitions could eventually count towards the compulsory work placements in T levels.
In some cases, WorldSkills standards are already being used to inform the content of apprenticeships being developed, according to the Institute for Apprenticeships. And, in the government’s apprenticeship funding rules, it is made clear that preparation for, and attendance at, skills competitions counts towards the off-the-job training component, which must make up 20 per cent of an apprentice’s time – a clear attempt to encourage employers to back their apprentices on the biggest stage.
The gradual spread of WorldSkills across the FE sector is a trend that should be welcomed, according to Milton. Last year, she flew out to Abu Dhabi, becoming the first serving minister to attend an overseas competition in person since 2009.
Speaking at the competition, Milton offered a succinct analogy as to the role she sees WorldSkills as playing in the wider education system: “A competition like this is like a pebble in a pond. Irrespective of how the team do, it is about making sure the ripples from this competition spread out as far as they can.”
A year on, Milton believes that the ripples are indeed spreading throughout the UK. “Funds in employers’ apprenticeship service accounts can be used to help with the costs of apprentices participating in skills competitions, where this participation contributes to learning that directly supports achievement of the apprenticeship standard,” she said.
“But competitions like these will not only help people to achieve their apprenticeships, they will also inspire the next generation to channel their enthusiasm and passion into the thousands of exciting careers that are out there.”