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Skills version of the Olympics is gold standard

Too often, public discussion of the educational opportunities available to young people ignores the enormous benefits of vocational learning. The media is mesmerised by higher education, but where is the same concern about the quality and the outcomes of vocational learning in which hundreds of thousands of young people are engaged?

Next October, the UK will play host to WorldSkills London 2011, an international skills competition with 50 countries taking part. With less than a year to go until the opening of the contest, we have passed an important landmark with the announcement of the members of Squad UK.

For the young people who have been selected for the shortlist to represent this country in the world's largest international skills competition, the next few months will be among the most important of their lives.

The stakes are very high. With two or more people in the squad vying for each place in the team that will represent the UK at WorldSkills London 2011, the competition will be intense. Fortunately they will have the benefit of being coached by top vocational teachers and trainers who will help them to perform to the best of their ability.

It is a supreme honour to be in Team UK. No wonder people drive themselves to the limits of perfection to achieve it. Take Adam Smith, a gold winner in cooking at World-Skills 2009, who is now a chef at The Ritz.

I take enormous encouragement from this, because these young people are living proof of the standards of excellence to be found in vocational learning in this country. We have something to be proud of here which deserves wider understanding and appreciation. The squad members will grow and mature through this experience, and the money and time invested in them will produce outstanding role models of what is possible with the right conditions and resources.

What WorldSkills demonstrates, in the way that candidates are nurtured and stretched for the team selection, is that vocational learning at its peak makes as great a demand as the best academic learning in terms of rigour, passion and ambition. The opportunities it offers for personal development are no less than in many academic degree courses.

Reaching the standard demanded by UK Skills, which manages Squad and Team UK, means that most of the squad members will have enjoyed the benefit of an apprenticeship. This provides them with the opportunities, resources and status in which their potential can flourish. In particular, they will have depended upon the support of their employer, who has invested time and money in their development. These employers have a strong and enlightened commitment to learning and, in many cases, offer a superb learning environment, which is why applications for their apprenticeships are just as numerous as for our top universities.

The work and commitment of the employers is complemented, of course, by the important role of colleges, and I would like to pay tribute to those institutions that have helped to develop the young people selected for Squad UK.

While we have plenty to be proud of, there remains room for improvement elsewhere in the system. That is why I am committed to creating a new model for workplace training, which has apprenticeships at its heart. Our intention is that the apprenticeships programme can be built on for the future, to ensure that it provides more high-level and high-quality training opportunities. We are making moves towards this vision with the recent commitment to further increase adult apprenticeship numbers in the next four years.

The Government is committed to increasing the number and range of apprenticeships on offer, and improving their quality. We want apprenticeships to become the gold standard for workplace training.

There is much to be learnt from the approach adopted for the international competitions. In the most recent WorldSkills contest, held in Calgary in autumn 2009, the UK came seventh overall. This is the kind of record that we must build on, both in WorldSkills and our apprenticeship system. The truest measure of the success or failure of this Government's commitment to apprenticeships will be found in how well-equipped today's young people are to face the shifting challenges of life and work.

John Hayes is minister for further education, skills and lifelong learning.

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