Is The UK Further Education & Training Sector Producing The Best?

What is the best way to judge how well our Further Education and Training sector is helping shape our nation’s future? What do you look for? The WorldSkillsUK organisation has attempted to answer this question by finding the best of our young apprentices and sending them out against the world’s best in the WorldSkills 2017 competition in October 2017 in Abu Dhabi.

WorldSkills 2017 Results

The UK team, after battling through regional heats, a national final, the EuroSkills competition in Gothenburg, and months of intensive training, came 11th at the end of the competition. The thirty-four apprentices came home with a gold medal, three silver medals, three bronze, and thirteen medallions of excellence between them. The competition brought together 1,200 young people from over 50 nations around the world, and tested them in disciplines from hairdressing to plumbing, and cabinet making to beauty therapy.

There’s no doubt that all of Team UK who took part in the WorldSkills competition have done us proud, and it demonstrates that the vocational training sector is helping our young people to develop the skills they need to succeed. It also highlights that university is not the only path to a good career. But is the sector doing all it could? The top three countries in the WorldSkills 2017 competition were China, South Korea and Switzerland, so there is definitely some scope for improvement.

What does it mean?

The results of the competition show us that there is obviously a lot of good work being done in the FE and Training sector regarding young apprenticeships and aiding young people gain the skills and abilities they need to work in many of the career areas. Anne Milton, the Apprenticeships and Skills Minister, has said, “WorldSkills UK is doing a fantastic job supporting these young people, with thousands of hours of input. We need to put all that they are doing – the ethos of this competition, the spirit of these apprenticeships – into a bottle and sprinkle it across the UK.”

This might be the thinking behind the new careers strategy, aiming to build better links between schools, colleges and businesses, as well as providing clear information and guidance to young people so they don’t miss out on any opportunities. As a result, we may see more young people entering the FE and Training sector in the coming years, no doubt as part of the government’s aims to reach 3m apprenticeships by 2020. However, recent figures show that fewer people were starting apprenticeships last year – 18,000 less than the year before, in fact – and the number of people aged 19-23 fell to its lowest in seven years. Many are blaming the funding changes, where employers have to pay a levy which contributes to the costs garnered nationwide by the apprenticeship scheme. Some argue that since the funding was changed in May 2017, it is too early to see whether it is truly having a negative knock-on effect. Let’s hope not, or our chances of achieving a higher ranking among the world’s nations in the next WorldSkills competition will fall short.

What can we do?

If we want the UK’s Further Education and Training sector to be the best worldwide, then a few changes need to be made. For me, one of the most important is that the stigma and stereotype that those going down the apprenticeship route are somehow less than those studying for a degree need to be eradicated, as many think they need to study A-Levels and go on to university in order to get a good job and be successful later in life. Many who go to university don’t know what they want to do career wise, and so they often end up in debt and starting at entry-level positions anyway. If there was more career guidance early on, a more positive portrayal of apprenticeships and more incentives, perhaps even more young people would go down this route as a way to determine what they want to do.

There need to be more incentives for employers to provide funding and support to not only young people seeking to enter the world of work for the first time through an apprenticeship, but those aged twenty-four and above who wish to retrain in a different area. It is in an employer’s best interest that its candidates and staff are as highly trained and skilled as possible – surely it is in everyone’s best interest to promote all the opportunities available and make them accessible for all?

Finally, the sector should promote and celebrate its successes, not just in terms of the number of A* gained at A-Level, but such things as the 11th place in the WorldSkills competition, and how many hundreds of thousands are completing their apprenticeships and going on to do well in their chosen career path.

In light of Brexit, the UK will need all the skilled workers it can get, so let’s hope the government strategies and plans lead to greater numbers taking part and greater success rates.

The UK’s FE and training end-of-term report could be summed up by those all-too familiar words, much used in the past. “Good, but could do better.”

Next Steps

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