Vocational heroes limber up for the 'Skills Olympics'
In 1996, Britain's performance in the Olympics was by some reckonings its worst ever. Only Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent's heroics in the men's coxless pairs saved the nation from leaving Atlanta without a gold medal.
That humiliation was followed by the founding of UK Sport, which over the next decade would plough increasing amounts of Lottery funding into some of the most sophisticated facilities around and promote a new, more scientific approach to training.
In 2008, it had brought the UK to fourth place in the medals table four years ahead of schedule, as well as developing athletes such as the all- conquering track cycling team and double gold medallist Rebecca Adlington.
Worldskills, an international contest for the world's best under-24s in more than 30 vocational skills, officially discourages talk of it being the "Skills Olympics", since the International Olympic Committee guards its brand jealously. Privately, it revels in the nickname. But those in charge of the UK's preparations are explicit that they want to mimic UK Sport's achievements as they gear up to host the competition - which features events from cooking to construction - for the first time this autumn, ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London.
Jenny Shackleton, head of skills development at UK Skills, said: "We certainly looked at what happens in sport. In 2002-03, our performance was pretty steady but the rest of the world was beginning to overtake us. So we did a very radical appraisal of the UK's involvement in Worldskills."
The new approach would focus on the training managers, FE lecturers and other vocational skills teachers who are responsible for the development of potential competitors over a two-year period before the competition. They and their students are released from their usual work and studies for bouts of competition training, including smaller regional and national competitions to acclimatise them to doing their work under time pressure and competitive conditions.
A pool of between 1,500 and 1,700 potential competitors have to be whittled down to a shortlist of around 40. Final selection takes place in June, followed by an intense eight-week training period before the competition in October.
Before 2002, UK Skills believes the training could be too casual. Ms Shackleton said: "In some cases, the training manager role was a reward for good service rather than a real opportunity to act as a performance coach and really get the best from the young person."
Worldskills is mostly only known to a niche audience of participants and trainers in the UK.
But increasingly it is taken seriously by other countries as a symbol of national prestige and an indicator of future economic success. In an echo of the investment in Olympic athletes' success by Soviet bloc countries, rumours abound that South Korea offers its most successful candidates a car, a house or even a job for life if they bring back trophies to burnish its economic reputation.
China is also entering the fray, beginning with a handful of events this year, but it is likely to rapidly escalate its involvement. Perhaps as a sign of the UK's increasingly sophisticated work, it has chosen to shadow British preparations as it establishes itself in the competition.
Countries commonly share information and techniques rather than keeping them closely guarded competitive secrets. As well as helping China, the UK has collaborative research ventures with the University of Tempere in Finland and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Its own research is carried out jointly at the universities of Oxford and Cardiff.
The research will examine the techniques used to get the best from a small group of elite performers, whose training Ms Shackleton compares to the cost of an Oxbridge education. In an intense two-year training period, she said competitors are brought up to level 6, or degree level, from A-level equivalent, level 3.
At up to pound;90,000 per competitor over two years, rising to pound;150,000 with industry sponsorship, UK Skills justifies the lavish spending by arguing that it acts as a testing ground to produce high-quality research on the best ways to teach vocational skills.
"We are spending sort of Oxbridge sums on training a small number of competitors at the moment. We see it as a laboratory and an observatory," Ms Shackleton said.
She said there was emerging evidence that the ability to deal with the relentless, high-stakes pressure of competition was producing candidates particularly likely to thrive in the workplace.
She cites the examples of former competitors Adam Smith and Richard Sagar. Adam was a gold medallist in the 2009 cooking event in Calgary after two gruelling 11-hour days of competition. His performance gave his employer - the Ritz Hotel in London - the confidence to appoint him sous-chef, a role previously occupied by someone 20 years his senior.
Richard, who is now 22 and took a gold medal in electrical installation in the same year, was able to set up his own business installing environmentally sustainable technology following his Worldskills victory.
If the idea that a competitive environment can produce people who thrive in the workplace suggests a comparison with reality TV contests such as MasterChef or Michel Roux's Service, then speaking to John Dawson, training manager for automobile technology and a lecturer from Castle College in Nottingham, confirms it.
Passion, he says, is the key to a successful candidate. "Some of them are so passionate about their industry, it just shines through," he said. "It's very easy to work with someone like that."
Many of the trainers say that working with young people who are determined to aim for perfection, rather than just passing a competency assessment, can be an inspiring experience which they can bring back to their classrooms and departments.
Mr Dawson, who has worked in the automobile industry for nearly 22 years and taught in FE for about five years, says training managers needed to be similarly dedicated. "It's about being someone with the right experience, and life skills are important, too. Someone who has been in the industry a long time has the necessary qualifications and can work with young people. You've got to be methodical, practical and work to a standard of excellence," he said.
As host, the UK is expected to enter most of the events - a fact that could harm the country's final standing since one crucial measure is its average point score per event (for that reason, the UK is likely to stress its total medal count instead).
It means that some of the trainers are working in fields where the UK is only just establishing a presence. David Russell, who teaches at Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland, is preparing the competitors in mechatronics, a field which is rarely taught below degree level in the UK.
It involves creating complex assembly-line machinery using a combination of engineering, pneumatics and programming skills. Competitors work on a range of equipment devised by German engineering firm Festo. Mr Russell praised UK Skills' investment in this, but said he did not have access to the full range which would be used in competition.
Nevertheless, the candidates who go forward will be expected to be capable of a score high enough to win a medallion of excellence - which would mean a sixth-place finish out of more than 40 countries.
In other events, the UK is beginning to attract the attention of industry figures, according to Harry Turner, training manager in landscape gardening and lecturer at Askham Bryan College. He has even had award- winning TV gardener Chris Beardshaw, a mainstay of BBC TV's Gardener's World, working with his competitors.
Mr Turner said: "We had someone visit us recently who said, if you could have apprenticeships like this, training for these particular skills, you would be in demand throughout the world."
TRACK RECORD: WORLDSKILLS
Worldskills started in 1947 in Spain, where a shortage of skills prompted the idea of a national competition to convince students, parents and employers that their future lay in effective vocational training. By 1950, it had gone international, and in 1953 Britain participated for the first time.
Today, it involves over 50 nations which compete in 48 events, ranging from aircraft maintenance to carpentry, welding to web design, graphic design to beauty therapy. Some are scored subjectively by a panel of judges, rather like gymnastics or diving in the Olympics. Others are marked by stringently objective criteria.
All of the competitions are conducted under time pressure, usually about 22 hours of work over three days.