Going back into work today must have been an impossible thing to think about for Holly-Mae Cotterall when I asked her at close to midnight on Saturday night. And no wonder. The 19 year-old from Coleford in Gloucestershire had had quite the night, winning the gold medal in beauty therapy for Team UK at the EuroSkills competition in Budapest.
Speaking to me only hours later, she said it had not at all sunk in, and she would “never in a million years” have thought she might win. Holly-Mae is now, officially, the very best at what she does in Europe.
And within Team UK, she was in esteemed company, with four of her peers sporting bronze medals around their necks, and a further seven awarded a medallion of excellence, given to those that performed at the highest international standard in their skill.
Something to be proud of
They had made their country proud, WorldSkills UK chief executive Neil Bentley and chair Carole Stott told them on the night, and that pride was felt in the packed Budapest hotel meeting room full of their fans, training managers and supporters.
No wonder Holly-Mae thought it would be “really weird” to go back to work. Is that really it? Just 24 hours of glory before the reality of studies, apprenticeship training or work has got to set back in?
If we think about the fuss that is made over sporting heroes returning to the UK with medals, I cannot help but feel a bit sorry for all 22 of our EuroSkills heroes.
There is a wider point to be made here, too. We often complain at the lack of parity in the way apprenticeships, compared to a career at university, are held in this country. We also bemoan the lack of appropriate careers advice around vocational education, and the shortage of visible role models for children and young people.
Why let this happen?
So why are we letting this happen? Why are we letting these young people – undoubtedly inspirational in their fields – return to normality in this way? Surely, we need to take those medalists – who excelled in diverse fields from hairdressing to mechanical engineering CAD – and tour them around the schools and colleges of the UK?
I cannot imagine any nine-year old – or many 14 year-olds, for that matter - who would not be quite impressed by a smartly dressed 19 year-old with a rather large gold medal around her neck who can talk about the journey she has been on and the hurdles she has had to jump to become the best in Europe. Or by the bronze medallist who now studies at university, following a mechanical engineering course at college, and who has just been named the third best in Europe at CAD.
It isn't even, really, about inspiring them to be beauty therapists or hairdressers or mechantronics apprentices. It is about showing that there is success in a vocational route, and rewards, and pride.
Maybe it is too much to ask of Team UK's employers to continue to pay their salaries while these young people tour the country for a month or two. Maybe this is where skills minister Anne Milton could show how much she really values the WorldSkills competitions she witnessed so powerfully last year. It would not cost the earth for the government to subsidise 22 true role models.
Frankly, we cannot afford for our school children and college students to miss out on this little bit of vocational education limelight.