APPLYING gold leaf needs a good eye and a steady hand or, better still, two of each. The leaf comes in sheets the size of cigarette papers, but so much thinner that it can float away. One ill-directed sneeze can cost pounds. Or Deutschmarks in the case of the student whom I observed recently. With our twin town Bocholt, only a clog's throw from the Dutch border, we organise an annual exchange of students on courses in construction. Two or three weeks staying with a family, work experience, and the chance to watch the local Bundesliga club, Schalke 04, were an irresistible lure to some of our students. I took the opportunity to see how the exchange was working out.
One painting and decorating student had landed on his feet. His temporary boss spoke good English, ran a very successful specialist decorating company, and put the student up at his own home. After being shown how to do it (applying gold leaf comes quite late in our UK syllabus), there he was, working on a real task for a real client against a timescale and defined quality standards. No tame simulation, no make-believe.
At another work-placement, a decidedly upmarket home-furnishing store, two students from one of our interior design courses had been assigned the task of giving one of the rooms in the town hall a complete makeover: furniture, fabrics, curtains, colours, the lot. The proprietor of the store had lined up a design consultant to help the students. They had a clear brief, were made to feel that their work was important and were enjoying the challenge no end.
It is difficult to imagine a more obvious illustration of the benefits of well-planned work experience. All three placements didn't merely replicate college activities but progressed and enhanced them. Add the foreign dimension, again properly managed so that our students and their German counterparts not only worked but also ate, drank and partied together, and you have a really worthwhile educational episode.
All that is funded from the Leonardo budget, designed to channel European money into this kind of cross-border movement. But if the only outcome is a set of students with a smile on their face and a new portfolio under their arm, opportunities have been missed. Most obviously, there is the chance to compare the countries' two systems of vocational education and training, which is probably more interesting than it sounds. The Germans have the vaunte guilds and the famous dual system, and we now have competence-based assessment and NVQs.
The guilds set and control the standards which trainees must reach, and they also effectively control the curriculum: so much practical and so much theory, use of this machine, study of that kind of mathematics. In return they help to fund the provision, particularly by equipping the workshops. Talking to senior staff at our twin college, it was obvious that the need to satisfy the rather conservative requirements of the guilds was getting in the way of developing a more modern approach to training. Even to substitute a practical lesson for a scheduled theory session was a somewhat subversive act which had to be done surreptitiously.
What the staff already knew about our non-time-related NVQ system and the emphasis on flexibility as to when, where and how skills were taught had made their professional mouths water. They were touchingly unaware of the burdensome paperwork which is flexibility's constant companion. The thoroughness of the German training, and the unchanging nature of the syllabuses (virtually unaltered in over half a century) give a high status and esteem to the process which our newer, looser system lacks.
The situation shrieks for some means of comparability. No group of workers in the European Union is more mobile than those in the construction industry. We need an equivalent of the European Computer Driving Licence. And, praise be, there is one. Optional at the moment, the Europass is a starting point for recognition of equivalences in training experience. Issued by the EU, it records what trainees have learned while on placement in a country other than their own. The trainee's activities and capabilities are signed off by the provider of the work experience. At a glance, an employer can tell whether the French joiner looking for a job in Brighton can cut mitres. A Belgian painter, trained in Britain and hoping to spray a few walls in Berlin, will be able to point to evidence that he can be trusted to point his implement in the right direction.
The true test of the Europass will come when William Hague needs a plumber in the middle of the night, and one turns up, brandishing a pass with Italian endorsements. What price Euroscepticism when the pipes have burst and the water is up to your knees?
Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College