The UK is too focused on Europe when it comes to learning about skills excellence, according to WorldSkills UK deputy CEO Ben Blackledge.
In September, education secretary Gavin Williamson told the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that his aim was to “overtake Germany in the opportunities we offer to those studying technical routes by 2029”.
Speaking to Tes ahead of WorldSkills UK Live in Birmingham, Blackledge said that in this Brexit-dominated era, colleges should cast their eyes further afield to South Korea, China and India and reflect on how they are developing and teaching skills education.
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“Germany is always the one that we talk about and, yes, they have real strength, but when we talk to people in Germany, they say it's too inflexible and actually probably isn't as great as everyone says it is," Blackledge says.
Changes in skills development
“If you talk to colleagues from some of the European countries, everyone has the same issues around prestige and profile and those kind of things.
“Korea, China and India are the economies that are still in significant growth – yes, they’ve slowed down a bit – but that is where we're seeing growth come in and that's where we're seeing the change in skills development.”
It’s been well documented that the UK will face a massive skills gap post-Brexit: a KPMG survey from 2017 found that almost a million EU citizens working in Britain were either planning to leave the UK or had made up their minds to do so. This would potentially leave a gaping hole in the market – one that British citizens will have to fill.
And WorldSkills UK can play a key part in addressing that skills gap, says Blackledge: “I could pick up the phone to – not because it’s me, but because I’m from WorldSkills UK – lots of people from Korea, Russia, China or Brazil, and ask, 'How is this working?'”
He says conversations are ongoing with the Department for Education, and that it’s important that politicians see that while WorldSkills produces the live show in Birmingham and flies a team of inspirational young people out to compete internationally, it has a bigger ambition.
“We’re looking at how we help to create that world-class skills system that people are talking about, but no one really knows what it means. If we can help deliver that will help us to embed further into the FE sector,” Blackledge says.
WorldSkills is more than just a competition, he adds, and WorldSkills UK Live is more than just a recruitment event for competitors. “The idea is that you go there and you see young people like yourself competing and actually demonstrating what excellence is. If [visitors] are inspired to enter our competitions then that’s brilliant, but I guess my motivation isn't so much around that. It’s about when they realise, 'Here’s something that I could do and it has prestige and profile and something to be proud of.' If they then go into a college or training provider and actually, as part of that. they get a chance to compete, then brilliant,” he says.
Competing in skills competitions should be just one part of your college experience, says Blackledge – like spending a year abroad studying at university, an international competition can be an add-on that helps to create well-rounded young people.
Mental health 'as important as technical ability'
The competitions are an intense experience, and WorldSkills UK is keen to ensure that the mental health of all of its competitors is well looked after. At this week’s WorldSkills UK Live, mental strength will be a key theme.
“As an organisation, we've got this amazing platform," says Blackledge. "It's doing it in the context of careers and saying that, as you start your career, this is as important as your technical ability, your employability skills, and your communication is how you look after your mental health and what you are going forward.
"I'm really excited about having that theme across the three days.”
Tes is education partner for WorldSkills UK. WorldSkills UK Live takes place at the NEC, Birmingham from 21-23 November.