If the Association of Colleges’ annual conference is the staffroom, the Skills Show is the playground. A foot-throbbingly large playground where you can learn how to plaster a wall, work a bow and arrow or take your first steps in engineering to enhance human performance. I had a crack at all of them.
In a series of vast exhibition halls of Birmingham’s NEC, armies of young people – some uniformed school kids, others slightly older – charge from exciting thing to exciting thing. That big city strategy of walking with motivation and relying on others to clock your confidence and move out of the way doesn’t work in these halls. The revved-up, roaming youth are having a day out. There’s a mindblowing array of stuff to do. And if you get in their way, THEY WILL MOW YOU DOWN.
Amid the provider and employer exhibition stands, the have-a-go sections and the teacher-focused areas, there’s a significant competition taking place. There are actually multiple contests afoot, with young people from colleges nationwide competing in skills tournaments. Gongs in everything from elaborate special effects make-up to extreme bricklaying are up for grabs.
I used to think skills competitions were a bit of an It’s a Knockout-style pat on the head for those who are nifty with a trowel. I know, I know. That sentence reveals all colours of patronising misconception. Then I learned about the huge educational, motivational, aspirational value that such endeavours offer. Competition strategies in colleges around the country give an opportunity for students to strive for short- and long-term rewards, to celebrate achievement and to learn from successful alumni. And they’re not just for the skills elite. They can be as inclusive as you make them. The WorldSkills UK competitions may be taking place amid the throng, but they are the pinnacle of such aspirational learning approaches. The best of the vocational best concentrate on the creation of their varied masterpieces as we gawp at them, impressed not only by their talents but also their ability to ignore us gawping. It’s akin to a skills zoo.
Ten minutes in and I’m overwhelmed by the sheer size of the show as well as the eccentric variety of opportunities. Look in one direction and there’s a huge silo of concrete in a fenced-off arena full of people building walls. Look the other direction and there is line of professional kitchens with young chefs preparing culinary masterpieces. There are racing cars, indoor gardens, TV studios, a CSI-style crime scene mock-up, a National Express coach parked inside and kids dangling off a towering climbing wall with real-life soldiers shouting instruction. Most overwhelming of all is the sheer volume of ear-bleedingly loud, hyper-excited young people on a mission to fill their day with as much new experience as they can gather. It’s a bit much for me. But as I am jostled through the halls I hear the same word ring out from young mouths again and again: "AMAAAAAAAAAZING!"
After resigning myself to being overwhelmed, I begin to feel at home with the vibrating energy of the room so, in the spirit of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em", I decide to have a go at having a go.
First of all, archery. Not a skill that employers are begging for I’ll grant you but, being from Nottingham, I am strangely drawn to the Robin Hoodery of the exhibition stand. A gentleman from Kingswood outdoor activity centre shows me how to draw a bow while telling me about the residential apprenticeships for the outdoor, leisure and education industries that his organisation runs. With the upper-body strength of a gerbil I am not necessarily suited to archery. BUT I HAVE A GO.
It would seem rude to set foot in a cathedral of apprenticeships without venturing into the engineering region. A lab-coated woman from Middlesex University entices me into an area entitled “Enhancing Human Performance” with the question: “Do you want to look at the nervous system by any chance?” And I do! This isn’t what I think engineering is. There are microscopes and robots. No whiff of welding. I have an interesting chat with one of the university’s senior lecturers. Just as I clumsily assign engineering in FE to the upper echelons of academic vocational hierarchy, I learn that in HE it’s often perceived as the lowest. This PhD’ed engineering academic tells me that his wife, a mathematician, is seen as the clever one of the couple…
Engineering does, in fact, impact on everything from sport performance and environmental science to the more stereotypically viewed but no less valuable hard hat areas. It’s a vocation with its fingers in many pies.
Finally, as an imaginary contestant in my own personal Generation Game, I snap on some plastic gloves, a protective apron and goggles and learn to plaster a wall. The team from South and City College Birmingham are as patient as they are expert. It takes me five minutes to even understand the instructions of how to transfer the wet plaster from the big square plaster tray thingy (a hawk, I later learn) to the trowel. When I finally slap it on a makeshift wall, it’s more bubbly than an Aero. Although I am a rubbish plasterer, I am surprised at the therapeutic value of the activity. It’s ever so relaxing – I could save a fortune on spa treatments.
For me as a visitor, the Skills Show is too big, too loud, too busy. It's just not my thing. But it's not meant to be. I’m not a college student who needs an extra shot of inspiration or a 14-year-old who isn't sure of the long-term opportunities that are out there. For them, their parents and their teachers it is an invaluable resource.