International benchmarking is vital in raising standards in UK skills

In the absence of PISA rankings the UK skills system needs international benchmarking to drive up standards and keep us competitive, explains Ben Blackledge

In the absence of PISA rankings the UK skills system needs international benchmarking to drive up standards and keep us competitive, explains Ben Blackledge

26 Feb 2023, 5:00

Teaching technical skills to global industry standards is vital to the UK’s economic success so our employers can better compete internationally. But with no global league table for vocational education standards, unlike like the OECD’s PISA evaluation of school performance internationally, it is WorldSkills that provides a valuable mechanism for benchmarking the quality of skills. Through its competitions-based assessment of young people’s skills against global industry standards, we can compare UK standards against those in the rest of the world and importantly bring that international best practice back to the UK.  

In our report, International benchmarking and insights: bringing world-class skills to the UK, we have identified a number of insights for educators, businesses and government in efforts to turbo-charge technical education and apprenticeship standards as a source of economic competitiveness. These were gathered at WorldSkills Special Edition 2022, where the UK’s performance placed tenth in the world overall and finished fourth in digital skills. Three significant insights stand out.

Employability is key

The UK skills system is performing well in equipping young people with wider employability skills required by industry. Across all areas, technical skills are built on a bedrock of strong technical knowledge, and complemented by educators’ emphasis on problem solving, creative thinking and independent reasoning. This is reinforcing resilience in the mindsets of young people, empowering them to thrive in a commercial setting.

Consolidating these strengths can assist UK businesses, great or small, to navigate challenging times and the technological changes we know lie ahead. 

Collaboration is vital

The pace of these technological changes require deeper collaboration between education and business as global industry standards are getting higher and higher, year on year. The impact and pace of increased automation and digitisation can be seen in WorldSkills standards, which are reviewed every two years, in areas from robot systems integration to digital construction, where leading countries are acting in lockstep with global firms to ensure training and educator skillsets keep pace.

Systemic collaboration between industry, education, and government is vital and takes time to build, but countries like Japan and South Korea illustrate what can be made possible through collaboration, co-investment, and co-creation of training in sectors key to success. For UK national standards to compete with those in Asian economies, we need more focus on embedding collaboration between industry and education. Failure to do so means we will at best stand still, which actually means we will fall further behind.

This requires a relentless focus on investing in upskilling educators and a commitment to nurture innovation and cross-fertilise expertise within the skills eco-system. Be it the Austrian business-led ‘training network’ model or the Japanese ‘cross appointment’ system, strategic collaboration within and across public and private sectors is enabling all parties to benefit and underpin economic performance through world-leading standards.

The Institute of Technology model being rolled out across England also presents further opportunities to emulate this success and meet growing industry demand for higher technical skills evident in areas as diverse as welding, mechatronics and web technologies. 

Curriculum must evolve

Across all skill areas, high-performing countries are incorporating project-based training at key stages of the curriculum. This is helping to couple the acquisition of core technical knowledge with the honing of first-rate technical skills, eliminating “skills fade” from young people’s education journey and creating a cycle of continuous improvement. It is also renewing the enthusiasm and experimentation of educators – challenging them to innovate their methods and pursue excellence. This is enabling countries like Switzerland and Portugal to remain closely connected to the needs of the economy and labour market in high-growth industries.

We will be working with partners across the UK skills systems to disseminate these insights as part of our ongoing programmes which include the WorldSkills UK Centre of Excellence. Run in partnership with NCFE, the Centre of Excellence supports the development of educators in using international benchmarking to upskill more young people to reach the higher standards employers need.

Refreshing and updating these global insights will be key to our preparation for and participation in WorldSkills Lyon 2024, because keeping pace with global industry standards is essential to helping young people, educators and employers succeed, create jobs and drive economic growth.  

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