Off-the-job training in apprenticeships is clearly critical, while GCSE resits need to be rethought, writes Anne Milton

When I attended WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017, I was privileged to be the first government minister to witness WorldSkills on foreign soil. It was an experience I will never forget.

I was left in complete awe of the competitors. They demonstrated an amazing level of skills and had the mental stamina to keep up the intensity of a competition lasting up to four full days.

I soon realised that I was witnessing excellence from those incredibly talented young people. My visit gave me a fantastic opportunity, as a relatively new minister at the time, to learn about other countries’ skills systems. It left me in no doubt as to what we must do to improve skills levels in this country.

It is traditional to cite Germany as the gold standard for technical education. But we shouldn’t just try and emulate one country, there are many other countries that are also doing some excellent work on technical education.

For instance, Russia has used all that it learnt from WorldSkills as a basis for overhauling the country’s entire skills system. Meanwhile, a minister from Singapore was clear that one of the pillars of their successful technical and vocational education system is high English and maths standards.

There should be no weakening of our requirement for off-the-job training

This is something we haven’t yet got right in England. We want young people to achieve a strong standard in both subjects, but the GCSE resits policy can lead to young people repeatedly sitting exams and repeatedly failing, which can then go on to have a very detrimental impact on their confidence and self-esteem.

Functional skills qualifications help with this, but we need to continue to strive to find a better way of getting young people to develop and improve.

There was a lot of interest in our apprenticeship reforms and the introduction of T Levels. Discussing how apprenticeships work in different parts of the world is always useful. In particular, these conversations hardened my views about the importance of the off-the-job training element of apprenticeships.

Some businesses in the UK were unhappy about our requirement that 20 per cent of an apprenticeship should consist of off-the-job training. But what I discovered was that this minimum requirement is lower than those in place in almost every other country.

This confirmed my view that there should be no weakening on this requirement if we are to have the world-class apprenticeships our young people deserve.

What is clear to me is that to raise the esteem in which technical education is held, we must look at what excellence in skills looks like.

WorldSkills UK knows this better than anyone else. It holds the ring on excellence.

It leads the way on best practice because it must achieve exceptionally high standards for Team UK to win medals when competing against some of the strongest nations.

We also need long-term investment so providers can plan ahead. Further education has long been underfunded; adult education has dropped even further behind. Only by significantly increasing our investment can we achieve parity of esteem. How this funding is spent – and who these decisions are made by – is also critical.

Team UK does very well in the medal tables, consistently placing in and around the top 10. As a nation, we punch well above our weight for every pound spent.

If the government is serious about its stated ambitions on skills and technical education, what better way to do this than bidding to host the WorldSkills competition on UK soil?

If the UK is prepared to back a bid, just think what a message this would send to the country and the world about the importance of skills to the UK economy.

FE Week has been a strong champion of this bid and I look forward to talking further to the paper at the WorldSkills UK International Skills Summit next week.

It is a chance we simply cannot afford to miss as we strive for excellence in our skills systems.

The WorldSkills UK International Skills Summit takes place on November 11 and 12. For more information visit worldskillsuk.org