It is now only hours until the opening ceremony of WorldSkills Kazan 2019. After this begins the biggest test the 37 apprentices and college students who make up Team UK will have encountered in their lives. Already, videos of cheering competitors en route to Russia are all over social media, and there will be plenty more of that between now and Thursday night, which marks the official start of the "skills Olympics".
After that, however, there will be no more bravado and no more joking around. From then on, they will put those years of hard work into action. All of them have come through regional and national competitions, as well as a highly competitive selection process, beating hundreds, if not thousands, of peers along the way.
They have spent the past few months in the run-up to Kazan training. Every day. For hours. One told me that they had quit their job to be able to train full time. All in pursuit of those points they will need to secure a medal in their skills – from floristry to mechatronics and carpentry.
Background: What is WorldSkills Kazan?
WorldSkills: Team UK
Five of those young people started their journey at Scottish colleges. Callum Bonner, who competes in painting and decorating, is an apprentice with Clackmannanshire Council who trains at Forth Valley College. Mark Scott, the UK’s wall and floor tiling competitor, trains at City of Glasgow College and works for J McGoldrick and Sons. Konnar Doyle, who will face his peers in visual merchandising, is also a student at City of Glasgow College, while cybersecurity competitor Adrian Cybulski will be flying the flag for Glasgow Clyde College. Ross Megahy, now a student at the University of Strathclyde, studied at New College Lanarkshire.
Is this the first time you have heard their names? It shouldn’t be. Whether they win medals later this week or not, we should be shouting their names from the rooftops. They are the best the college sector has to offer, proof that it can deliver outstanding training that can set young people up to outclass their peers not just from around the UK but internationally.
So why are their stories not told more widely? Some of it, inevitably, is political. It must be difficult, particularly for a Scottish government, I imagine, to shout about a competition that is all about that “Team UK”, with Union flags and complex funding structures and boasting Westminster ministers keen to claim ownership, and everything else that comes with that.
But actually, I believe Scottish FE minister Richard Lochhead gets it, and will throw his whole support behind those youngsters from Scotland over the next few days. And we all need to do the same.
Let's get behind them
At a time when people are more divided than I have ever seen them in the 16 years I have lived here, and optimism has become a rare commodity, Team UK is one thing we can all truly get behind. Because while I will be hoping and praying for medals for Ross, Callum and their peers, it is about more than just those 37 young people, showing they can be better than Germany, Austria and the Russian hosts.
It is about showing what the FE sector can do when it is at its very best. The UK's competitors cover a broad range of skills, from a recent addition to international competitions, cybersecurity, to more old-fashioned trades like painting and decorating and wall and floor tiling, to creative visual merchandising and that much talked about area of engineering. That is something to be proud of in itself.
But it is not the end of the story. Fun fact: Since 2013, the mechanical engineering CAD competitor for Team UK has been a New College Lanarkshire (or, prior, to that Motherwell College) student every single time. Are you impressed? No? How about this: They were all trained for international competition by the same man: Barry Skea. Who teaches at – yes, you guessed it – New College Lanarkshire.
A Team UK expert, he not only trains and helps select the competitor, he is also a judge at international competition. By its very definition, he is the embodiment of world-class skills in a crucial sector for the economy. In Kazan, he is joined by another Scottish expert, Michael Swan, responsible for painting and decorating.
Both of them will share their expertise with their international peers – but they will also bring back the most recent developments in their industries from all over the world when they return to college next month. When the UK is on the brink of exiting the EU and heading towards an uncertain future, that excellence is going to be crucial when it comes to supporting the country’s economy. So let’s celebrate that.
Of course, colleges have plenty of challenges. But we will be back to talking about staff pay and conditions, financial sustainability and access issues again in no time. For now, let’s get out our whistles, vuvuzelas or whatever other noisy implement you can find and cheer on Team UK. The contests start on Friday, and you will be able to follow all the action – in all 37 skills – on the Tes website, Twitter and Facebook. Trust me, you will enjoy it – and those young people deserve your full attention.
Julia Belgutay is deputy FE editor at Tes