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The unsung Olympic heroes

The UK had some world-beaters at the Skills Olympics in Helsinki this week. But did anyone at home care ? Joe Clancy reports from Finland

There were no victory parades, no open-top bus rides, and no cheering crowds when the UK's young apprentices brought home their medals from the World Skills Competition in Helsinki.

The British team achieved its highest-ever placing in the competition dubbed the Skills Olympics, coming 11th out of 40 countries taking part.

It was their best performance since the biennial competition began in 1951, up four places from the 15th achieved in Switzerland in 2003.

The UK's athletes have won bigger accolades for less.

But celebrations were decidedly low-key when this UK team arrived home clutching their medal haul. The lack of interest in their talents or success - meriting scarcely a mention in the national news media - is among the factors that have led to the UK languishing in the middle of division two in the world skills league, according to one of the organisers.

Jenny Shackleton, former principal of Wirral metropolitan college on Merseyside, who is in charge of training the UK skills team, said the lack of interest demonstrated the poor status which skills education still has in the UK.

It would take, she said, "a drastic change in our culture" for the UK to catch up with the world skills leaders, the Germans, Koreans, Italians and the Swiss.

"In the UK, vocational education and training is still seen as remedial, or for people who cannot do the academic subjects," she said.

Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said:

"Among the 30 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, we are ahead only of Greece, Mexico, and Turkey in terms of participation in vocational education and training post-16."

Considerable progress was made this year, with the UK outscoring traditional skills giants such as Japan, France and Taiwan.

Andrew Blair, 23, of Doagh, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, won a gold medal in the car body repair event. He was the UK's only gold medallist, and came seventh overall. Andrew was trained by Blackwater House, a training firm in Newtonabbey.

There were silver medals for the Lowestoft college-trained Joanna Thompson in beauty therapy, and for York college's Gary Collier in stonemasonry.

Seven more competitors received medals for scoring more than 500 points in their events, the benchmark for reaching world-class standard.

Tjerk Dusseldorp, the Australian who is president of World Skills, said:

"The English-speaking world is in the second division of this competition, and there is a big gap between division one and division two.

Speaking before the results were declared, he added: "Australia, the USA, Canada, as well as the British and the Irish, are a long way behind the Germanic nations and countries in the Far East."

This year's competition did produce some surprises, with Japan and Taiwan falling out of the top ten, and Ireland and Australia moving up in their place.

Though winning a Skills Olympics medal will not make household names out of the top apprentices, such success can give them a substantial career boost.

Leanne Knighton, who won a beauty therapy gold two years ago, revealed that her phone rang with a top job offer as soon as she walked off stage with her medal.

"It was from a skin-care products company who asked me to be an area manager," she said. "It pushed my career forward many years." Leanne now works for Warwickshire college where she trained, running a health spa developed for teaching. She was in Helsinki giving support to this year's beauty therapy competitor, Joanna Thompson.

Other past competitors were in Helsinki as assistant training managers.

Stephen Powell, who trained at Leicester college, said reaching the Skills Olympic finals has boosted his painting and decorating business.

"My order book is never less than full for 80 weeks ahead," the 24-year-old said. "And people are prepared to wait that long."

Michael Goulding, a stonemason who competed in Korea in 2001, is now working on Liverpool Cathedral, rebuilding a tracery window blown out by gales.

"A lot of people are surprised that there are young people with the level of craftsmanship we have in stonemasonry," he said.

Darren Davies, a bricklayer who came fourth in 2001, now runs his own specialist construction business employing seven people.

He said: "Those who compete in this competition are just as dedicated, just as focused and train just as hard as those who compete in the Olympic Games," he said. "Other countries give their competitors massive amounts of backing and they have a lot more prestige."

Preparation and training of the UK team, comprising 18 competitors aged between 18 and 22 in 16 events, was the most intense it has ever been.

Two fitness trainers were employed to improve their mental and physical capabilities. Every day for the four days of competition, they were up at 6am for a training run.

Graeme Hall, chief executive of UK Skills, which manages the team, is convinced the competition is vital to driving up standards in skills training in the UK.

He said: "The standards set at these events provide a benchmark against which industry can measure and compare its performance with that of our major overseas competitors and so help to raise the standard of performance within the UK.

"The competitors come from a training culture that produces young people good enough to compete at a world level.

"We are only just beginning to take this competition seriously and to see the benefits for employers and training providers.

"It helps to develop new techniques and faster ways of working that become an inspiration for the rest of the employee group."



The top 20 countries at the world skills competition, by average score

1. Korea

2. Italy

3. Switzerland

4. Germany

5. Singapore

6. Austria

7. Ireland

8. Australia

9. Lichtenstein

10. Thailand

11. United Kingdom

12. Finland

13. Japan

14. Denmark

15. Taiwan

16. France

17. Canada

18. Sweden

19. Luxembourg

20. New Zealand

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