International skills competitions have been held every two years since 1950, but only now are they creeping into everyday consciousness. The hope is that, by the time London hosts the next competition in 2011, this fantastic festival of skills will be much better known and much better supported.
Skills competitions showcase the highest standards of excellence. Not only do they provide an amazing confidence boost and a sense of achievement for competitors, they also help develop inspirational role models within all industries.
I have just returned from Calgary where a record 46 countries competed across over 40 skill categories ranging from cabinet making to web design. Until you see the competition in action it is difficult to get a clear impression of the size and the scale of the event.
Over 900 young people competed for medals and there was in addition an army of 6000 technical experts, judges and supporters. Calgary changed the dates of its schools’ terms so that young people could attend the competition and it is reckoned that some 40,000 people visited over the four days of competition. They were treated to an exhibition of world-class skills, undertaken in the full glare of public attention and under conditions of enormous competitive pressure. Visitors’ eyes were opened to what is involved in particular technologies and trades and advice was on hand for those who wanted to follow up a possible career interest.
Amongst those who spent time at the competition were the Skills Minister, Kevin Brennan MP, and Sir Reg Empey and John Griffiths who hold the relevant portfolios in the Northern Ireland and Welsh administrations respectively. Scotland was also represented by Sharon Donnelly – this was truly a UK team.
And the team did impressively well, coming overall seventh in the medals table – a leap of four places from the previous competition and the best result ever recorded by Team UK. There were three gold medals in Cookery, Electrical Installations and Painting & Decorating and a further six bronze medals (Autobody Repair, Joinery, Floristry, Aircraft Maintenance, Restaurant Service and Beauty Therapy). All but three of the 26 strong team achieved a standard above the recognised global benchmark. Although magnificent in itself, the bar will be raised again for the UK team at the London 2011 event.
City & Guilds is a premier sponsor of the 2011 competition because we believe it is important to demonstrate the quality of the work that young people are capable of. We need to create a greater level of awareness amongst the general public.
As the general election approaches there are depressing signs that politicians will revert to type and focus solely on academic achievement. There are already worrying suggestions that vocational qualifications should not be taken into account in the formulation of school league tables. In addition, Diplomas are under fire even before they have had a chance to prove themselves.
More worrying still are indications that the concept of ‘fullness’ (and the funding entitlement that goes with it) might, in some circumstances, be satisfied by successful completion of a single unit.
Employers will be rightly concerned if they are told that such achievement is sufficient to make a person work-ready. What is perhaps worse is that some learners might be deceived into using their entitlement for a level 2 qualification on something that will have little value in the market.
Of course, these are currently just proposals, but even if they are just kite-flying they are irresponsible and dangerous. If the UK is to move up the international comparison charts we must cure ourselves of the cheap fix approach. We need ‘excellence’ not just the passable or the ordinary.
So a celebration of the best in the world, such as we have just seen in Calgary, is a welcome reminder that quality shines through. It is what will differentiate us as a nation and it is what most individual learners aspire to.
Andrew Sich is director of corporate affairs at City & Guilds, the awarding body that focuses on skills