A striking picture hit Twitter yesterday. It shows dozens of young men and women in dark suits and white trainers, proudly posing on the steps of one of the most iconic buildings in Germany’s capital Berlin – those of the Chancellery. Among them, front and centre, is the country’s political leader, Angela Merkel.
They weren't a foreign delegation or a successful sports team. They were Germany’s WorldSkills Kazan competitors.
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Yes, you have read that right. The person posing with them wasn't an education secretary, a minister responsible for skills and vocational training or the local MP of one of the successful competitors. It was the chancellor herself. And it was not just a photo-friendly flying visit to a training centre or large employer, either – the chancellor, who has been Germany’s political leader for 14 years, had a strong message for the competitors and team leaders who took their vocational skills to the international stage this August.
“All of you demonstrated endurance, a sporting spirit, skill and talent and are good ambassadors for the training system in Germany,” she said.
And then came the cruncher: “We want ‘Made in Germany’ to be something that continues to have clout and is recognised across the world. That is only possible with a skilled workforce that has been trained very well. There have to be people in this world who have a practical approach to life.”
No reference to “parity of esteem”, that entirely vapid phrase UK politicians are so fond of throwing around when it comes to trying to raise the status of vocational and technical skills. Instead, a firm acknowledgement – from someone with a doctorate in quantum chemistry and a past as a research scientist – that, as an economy and as a country, Germany requires people who approach the world from a practical, applied, technical perspective.
Team Germany had a solid competition in Kazan – the 39 competitors returning home with two gold and three bronze medals, as well as 19 medallions of excellence. This meant they placed 11th – just one place above the UK.
There is no point denying it – the result leaves both nations significantly behind those at the very top of the medal table. China won 16 gold medals, 14 silver, 5 bronze and 17 medallions of excellence, and host country Russia, which came second, won 14 golds, 4 silver, 4 bronze and 25 medallions of excellence.
Nevertheless, the team's invitation to Berlin, WorldSkills Germany said, showed how important vocational education is to the chancellor and the German government – and I am minded to agree.
It may not compare to the lucrative rewards competitors elsewhere get for WorldSkills success – rumoured to include cash bonuses and even houses – but it is a world away from what Team UK’s competitors get to experience.
As far as I can tell, Merkel had nothing to sell. She is not in the midst of an election campaign, or establishing herself in a new cabinet position. In fact, she will soon step down from her post. The time she spent with Germany’s WorldSkills competitors, it seems, was not just a Twitter-friendly photocall to show just how much the chancellor buys into the “vocational education is just as important as university” narrative.
Team UK has had some recognition, of course. We all remember then skills minister Anne Milton’s glowing reports on their skills and character in countless speeches, as well as her visits to WorldSkills UK Live and international competitions. Along with her predecessor Robert Halfon, she also attended the WorldSkills UK send-off events for Team UK at Westminster, posing for pictures and handing out badges. Scottish FE and apprenticeship ministers have also met former and current competitors and send enthusiastic messages via social media.
And well done them! https://t.co/sJ1OY74DRH— Richard Lochhead (@RichardLochhead) November 23, 2019
And then, how could we forget newly appointed education secretary Gavin Williamson’s first visit to a college in August, where he met Team UK competitors and even – hold my teacup while I faint with excitement – was shown how to use an electric screwdriver by competitor Jack Goodrum. The video posted by Westminster Kingsway College of that special moment has been viewed almost 11,000 times.
As the election approaches and Brexit is still looming over the horizon, we constantly hear about Britain’s need to have a competitive economic edge. How can that possibly happen when we treat the very best young people we have in these key industries as no more than an annual photo opportunity?
Williamson's vow at the Conservative Party Conference to "overtake Germany in the opportunities we offer to those studying technical routes" feels even more hollow.
Can you imagine how much it would actually lift the status of those young experts if they were invited to a reception at Downing Street, or had a chance to shake hands and have a grown-up conversation with whoever the prime minister of the day may be? Our WorldSkills heroes deserve recognition, not tokenism.
The members of WorldSkills Team UK are more than just competitors with shiny medals. They are young leaders in their fields. And the only thing that will ever give them – and everyone in vocational education – the recognition they deserve is when we start treating them as such.