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Successful few could lift our game

It is good to be able to end the year on a cheerful note. All looks set fair for the next Olympics - not in sports (where we seem as muddled as ever) but in the biennial International Youth Skills Competition to be held at St Gallen in Switzerland. Last time round we even won the cookery gold medal in Lyon, the gastronomic heart of France, much to the chagrin of the hosts.

Our recent successes contrast sharply with only a few years ago when apart from the odd medal in hairdressing we won very little. How has this dramatic change been effected? Surely not through national vocational qualifications I hear you say? Well, hardly.

The explanation is altogether more interesting. It seems that Mrs Thatcher got increasingly fed up with our dismal showing - culminating at the Birmingham Exhibition Centre in 1989 - and decided to do something about it. A national co-ordinating body, UK SKILLS, was set up under the chairmanship of the redoubtable Sir John Cassels to organise the British entry.

Sir John immediately realised that to do well we had to increase the pool of talent from which the team is drawn and to hone up the skills. He set about creating a countrywide framework of competitions with local and regional events feeding into national finals, often held alongside major trade exhibitions.

Throughout the year our team for next July has been decided in this way. Mark Scott from Durham became IT Technician of the Year beating eight other regional finalists in a three-day event at IBM covering activities from setting up a computer to making a presentation. Chris Giddings, an apprentice with Garrard, the jewellers, won a two-stage knock-out competition organised by the Goldsmiths' Company. The building trade chose its representatives at the Skillbuild International where participants were given 20 hours to show what they could do in such tasks as painting a wall with the Olympic logo, making a wooden cabinet or tiling a floor.

The approach is beginning to pay off. At Lyon besides cookery we took golds in information technology and plastering, a silver in cabinet making and bronzes in plumbing and stonemasonry. Seven diplomas of excellence were also gained, so half the team achieved an award. The average score was above 500, the international standard. Compare this with only two years ago in Taipei when of the 44 gold medals, Taiwan won 18 and Korea 12, and we, not one. Neither did we achieve gold in Amsterdam two years before.

Not everything is now rosy, however. Engineering and manufacturing are still disappointing. Without recognised national competitions we were not able to field representatives in some of the categories, and in milling we came last but one and in pattern-making last. Employers have not always been able to find the time for their apprentices to take part, but even here there are hopeful signs with some of the major manufacturers like Fords organising their own competitions.

One of the lessons that has been learned from earlier Olympics is that success depends not only on technical and manual skills, but also on being able to plan and manage time to the best advantage. Our teams are now trained to size up tasks, work out the order in which things have to be done and organise accordingly. British competitors in St Gallen will be better prepared than ever, and for most it will be the experience of a lifetime.

But is all the effort and expense worthwhile nationally? Major benefits are claimed. International competitions, so the argument runs, are a way of judging our performance against the rest of the world, learning from the expertise of other countries and testing the effectiveness of training programmes. They are fun to take part in and provide an incentive for individuals to excel. They celebrate skills, erstwhile undervalued, but vital to the quality of all our lives.

The contrary view is that discovering excellence through competition is both stressful and ultimately discouraging. Certainly some of the competitors feel the weight of expectation. At Lyon a young Korean who realised his project was not going well tried to throw himself out of a second-floor window. But there again life has its pressures. Our poor performance on the games field may have something to do with a movement a few years ago for non-competitive sports (an oxymoron surely) which led to some of our best schools' teams being disbanded.

In all of education and training there is a tension between excellence and competence, between picking out the few and ensuring that the majority reach a certain threshold. It surfaces in deciding whether primary schools should emphasise individual differences or learning in common, whether in science education to concentrate on finding Nobel prizewinners or raising scientific literacy, and whether to devote resources to the gifted or the ordinarily intelligent. The pendulum swings one way then the other. Not so long ago the whole of British education was about excellence, but in the mid-Sixties it became almost a dirty word.

Skills training has been a problem for some time. The new vocational qualifications are geared to competence not excellence. The competitions-based approach of UK SKILLS is an important testbed. Recently it has linked up with Modern Apprenticeships in a number of sectors, among them hairdressing, hospitality and engineering manufacture. If it can show that the success of the few can raise the levels of achievement of the many, it will help resolve a stubborn dilemma.

Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University.

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