Geoff Russell is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency

Geoff Russell, Chief Executive of the Skills Funding Agency, reflects on the overwhelming success of WorldSkills London 2011, secure in the knowledge that this is just the start of something much bigger ...

There's a saying that seeing is believing. And it's true: you had to see WorldSkills London 2011 to believe it ... acres of skills on a scale which just blew you away.

It was - quite simply - the biggest and best skills event the world has ever seen, with a fitting set of record-breakers and superlatives to match. One thousand young people, from forty-six countries, competing for stardom. It was the first event ever to take over the whole of the ExCeL London venue; with 200,000 visitors it was the biggest single event they have had and required the UK's largest restaurant to be created especially for the occasion. Meanwhile the largest known convoy of iconic London Route Master buses assembled at Excel to take delegates sightseeing around London and the huge influx of visitors gave the Docklands Light Railway its greatest number of passengers ever in one day. And all this time, an international press presence of over 500 journalists relayed the story home to feed an eager global media appetite for skills news.

Big statistics like this amplify the buzz that WorldSkills London 2011 generated and underline how this occasion brought skills into the spotlight like no other event has before. International opinion has already voted WorldSkills London an overwhelming success.

But if seeing is believing, has London's experience of staging and seeing WorldSkills 2011 bolstered our sceptical nation's belief and pride in skills?
I'd like to think so and I'm certain they will have moved up a notch in the collective psyche of the UK. But there is still further to travel.

You will know that changing public perception about the quality and value of vocational learning is an important objective we share among Government, the Agency and the sector. And as you may have heard me say before, in our wider purpose to improve the skills of everyone in the UK it is truly motivating to celebrate those that have proved themselves to be the best.

But sadly, the world runs all too often on a comfort blanket of clichés and stereotypes. Consider the commonly held perception of the word 'vocational' in comparison to the word 'vocation' and it is more than a little telling. The UK perception of a 'vocational skill' can still be lowly compared to that of our international colleagues and competitive rivals. Whereas the perception of a vocation, a calling to an esteemed high level skill such as medicine or a profession such as teaching seems to be perceived very differently.

So if we are to sway public perceptions of skills and break free from our stereotypical fetters we need to harness the momentum and energy generated by WorldSkills London as a lasting legacy. We need to encourage competitiveness and participation by telling an ongoing story of how skills competitions can benefit individuals, employers, apprentices, the Further Education sector, the economy and society.

And so together with the National Apprenticeship Service we intend to create a permanent legacy for skills in the UK by running an annual skills competition that will roll together as much of the competitions and awards landscape as we can. It will culminate in an annual high profile event, bringing together all of the national finals to demonstrate the best in Further Education. It will showcase the tremendous achievements of learners and the impact of skills and learning on individuals, businesses and the economy - to demonstrate how important FE really is.

There will also be an important international dimension, with other countries encouraged to participate alongside the national finals to provide our UK participants with a taste of international competition. I am confident it will attract new entrants to the sector; celebrate the achievements of learners, providers and employers; but - most importantly - will ultimately raise standards in teaching and qualification levels.

At the WorldSkills London closing ceremony, Team UK were awarded five gold, two silver and six bronze medals, making them fifth overall in the medal stakes. What an excellent achievement and inspirational progress from Calgary two years ago. My congratulations go to all the competitors and to everyone involved in organising this incredible event. But the true prize must be the beginning of a new, inspired future for skills excellence to celebrate vocational skills, raise standards and bring tangible benefits to the FE sector as a whole. And let's not forget the very tangible benefit of attracting thousands of school children to come and see experts demonstrate their skill, to have a go themselves and to be able to get on site information, advice and guidance. What better way to explain the benefits of FE to young people?

The new cycle of national competitions has already opened for entries; and I need your help to spread the word. Help us to immortalise the interest and excitement of the event by encouraging teachers, college tutors, employers and individuals to visit worldskillsuk.org before 15 March 2012 to discover more about how they can get involved with skills competitions.
And if seeing really is believing, let the fresh vision brought by WorldSkills London 2011 re-focus our sights on what will be a true legacy for Further Education; the beginning of a new, inspired future for skills excellence in the UK. And of course, we might finally have a means to do more about the reputation of the sector than just complain about it.

Geoff Russell is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, a partner organisation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills


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