Rejecting the 'neglected' tag with a skills contest

7th October 2011 at 01:00
Following WorldSkills, an Olympic-style challenge will be annual

The verdict on Team UK at WorldSkills 2011 will not come in until the international skills contest reaches its finale tomorrow. But organisers have already decided it has been a success - and will today announce an annual national skills competition as its legacy.

Called WorldSkills UK, it is being seen by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and the National Apprentice Service (NAS) - which will jointly organise the contest - as a chance to finally put vocational skills in the limelight. It is a riposte to years of complaints about the "Cinderella sector" or, in Sir Andrew Foster's phrase, the "neglected middle child" of education.

"Overwhelmingly, FE is seen in these terms because people don't know enough about it," said David Cragg, national director of development at the SFA. "We want this to be a public showcase."

The new competition will involve bringing together at least 25 of the industry-specific contests that have been held for many years, from SkillBuild in construction to L'Oreal-sponsored hairdressing competitions. It is hoped that a single national event will maximise attention and put the focus on the variety in the skills world. But the organisers admit they do have work to do on synchronising the timetables of a whole host of contests.

"The challenge next year is to generate the same level of commitment and interest across the UK. We want it to become part of the psyche of the education and skills system," said Jaine Bolton, director of business development at the NAS. She said countries such as Canada, France and Finland had been through a similar process: former hosts have often tried to capitalise on the enthusiasm generated by establishing a national contest.

An example has been set closer to home by Northern Ireland. There, the Department for Employment and Learning promotes 70 WorldSkills-accredited competitions and its six colleges participate enthusiastically. It has had medal winners going back to 2005, when Andrew Blair won gold in autobody repair. The result of this sustained engagement is that seven out of the 43 competitors taking part in WorldSkills are from Northern Ireland - more than five times the proportion that its population would suggest.

Mr Cragg said he wanted the competition to inspire change within FE; to motivate staff and students to focus on excellence, not just on competence. This all means encouraging more colleges and training providers to participate. While some have been enthusiastic, others have not engaged at all - Mr Cragg said they were working increasingly with private providers "who have been fairly untouched by this work in the past". He named North Warwickshire and Hinckley College and Stephenson College in Leicestershire as standout examples of what can be achieved: at North Warwickshire, principal Marion Plant says she encourages competitions at every level to motivate students to improve.

Ms Bolton said the competition this year had focused on a few institutions which produced the volunteers who went through the selection heats, since the pressure was to quickly identify candidates and work on preparing them to compete for medals. Now she says they will have more time to build the infrastructure for engaging with more providers. "The strategy of UK Skills (the body which managed Team UK's entry to WorldSkills 2011) was focused on this year's event and on finding high-performing individuals for the team. So they focused on volunteers," she said. "What we need to do next year is to take it to every college and independent provider."

A national competition is expected to involve "tens of thousands" of members of the public attending and learning more about skills training opportunities. That is partly supported by the interest in WorldSkills 2011: before the competition began, 140,000 people were registered to attend over its four days (maximum capacity is 50,000 a day).

The competition is expected to be smaller than the #163;40 million international event finishing at ExCeL in London's Docklands this weekend. But it could still have a multi-national flavour, as many national competitions also invite foreign competitors looking to "pressure-test" their future contestants.

The keyword for the organisers is "mainstream": they want skills training to take its place in the culture. Much of this aspect of the legacy success might depend on how much mainstream media attention they can garner: before the competition began, 1,000 journalists were registered to attend and BBC3 was filming for a one-off programme on the challenges and opportunities facing young people looking for work.

On the other hand, it is BBC3: while the channel has already hosted similar contests such as its own Young Plumber of the Year, it also has a 1.5 per cent audience share. Maybe when WorldSkills UK takes its place alongside MasterChef, its organisers will know they have succeeded.

WORLD DOMINATION

- One thousand competitors from more than 50 countries are competing in 46 events.

- London 2011 is the 41st WorldSkills International contest, and the third time it has been held in the UK, after Glasgow in 1965 and Birmingham in 1989.

- Organisers expect more than 140,000 people to attend over four days.

- WorldSkills has cost #163;40 million to stage, with more than half that sum provided by commercial sponsorship.

- It will be the largest event ever held at ExCeL in Docklands, and the first to use the whole of its 100-acre campus.

- The next competition will be held in Leipzig, Germany, in 2013.

PAST SUCCESSES

WorldSkills rankings for the UK by total medals

2009 - Sixth equal in Calgary, Canada

2007 - Thirteenth equal in Shizuoka, Japan

2005 - Sixteenth in Helsinki, Finland

2003 - Seventeenth in St Gallen, Switzerland.

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