From education to employment

A horse called Skills

Skills Funding Agency chief executive Geoff Russell


Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, explains why he will be backing skills all the way.

This week I learned of a horse in the north of England called “Skills”. Now, while I may be responsible for adult skills funding, I doubt it would be considered a proper use of public money to put £4 billion on number 4 at the 3.15 at Doncaster. Nevertheless, I am allowed to back skills that will help employers in the UK to win the race for economic recovery and growth.

It is an odd name for a horse, so it led me to look up the origins of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “skills” as – ‘expertness, practised ability, facility in an action’. Further, its first known use was as early as the13th century with the Middle English word skilen from the even older Norse skilja. Seemingly, this meant to separate or divide; perhaps distinguishing the wheat from the chaff? Selecting the best from the rest?

In our wider purpose to improve the skills of everyone in the UK, it is motivating to celebrate those that have proved themselves to be the best. In last month’s column I congratulated our medal winners at the Euroskills competition. The UK Team, all aged under 25, secured 17 medals, including eight gold, in skills ranging from Mechanical Engineering through to Landscape Gardening and Hairdressing at the European Skills Competition. They have truly distinguished themselves as the best in Europe and set superb examples of what can be achieved through vocational skills. I look forward to WorldSkills in London in October where I hope even more young people will mark themselves out as exceptionally talented.

I firmly believe that the celebration of excellence through skills competitions has a crucial role to play in increasing participation, raising standards and improving the status of vocational skills in the UK. Considerable time and effort is required to take our squads up to competition level standard. The implications of this fact deserve careful consideration for all of us. Certainly, establishing such excellent role models provides powerful encouragement for all learners across the country to reach their full potential. Testing competitors’ skills, knowledge and practical application against international industry benchmarks does not just equip the UK (and some lucky businesses) with the most highly skilled young people in Europe, it can be hugely influential in promoting skills and raising that elusive spirit of aspiration.

But while competitions are of direct benefit to learners, businesses and the economy, don’t underestimate the value they bring to colleges and training providers. Supporting learners to compete against the best in the region, the best in the country, the best in Europe or even the best in the world has as inevitable impact on driving up standards and the quality of provision. There is also a direct effect on the motivation and enthusiasm of the whole student body and a higher profile for the college or provider among learners and employers locally, nationally and internationally. Some 274 colleges and a limited number of training providers are involved in the competitions. This is good – all would be better. And of course, the link between the competition and Apprenticeships, a key Coalition priority, is clear.

It’s also important to prepare learners for the competitive world in which they will ply their skills. In my view, colleges and training providers have a vital role to play in educating learners in the ethos of competition. At a recent summit of northern European leaders in London, Estonia showcased its approach to developing entrepreneurial talent by encouraging learners to dare to try to prove themselves and to excel. This is a model that some parts of the further education sector are pursuing and more might adopt.

Estonia’s example is a stark reminder that, in skills terms, the UK is barely keeping its head above water whilst other nations steam ahead. By 2020, we are projected to be 20th of the 30 OECD countries in low level skills; 21st in intermediate and 11th in high level skills, instilling a spirit of competition, of aspiration, of enterprise, that we will begin to buck that trend and re-establish ourselves at the top table of international skills.

So skills competitions shouldn’t be a ‘bolt on’ to day-to-day teaching, but part of the curriculum itself. I know this is the approach of North Warwickshire and Hinckley College where Principal and Chief Executive Marion Plant says that staff and students engage best with competitions when they see striving for excellence as beneficial to their studies and overall career development.

And if you have missed making an entry for the London Worldskills race, there are competitions happening all over the country this year that represent the start of the process that will lead to the very best in the UK competing at WorldSkills in Leipzig in 2013. For entrants, the time between now and then is a path of testing your skills against your peers and the very best in the country. So I encourage all FE colleges and training providers to nominate their talented learners and apprentices to enter the WorldSkills UK competition for their skill. Most WorldSkills UK Competitions close for entry on 24 March 2011, so visit to find out how to enter.

Entries also opened this month for the Apprenticeship Awards, celebrating those employers and apprentices that have shown the greatest commitment and achievement through Apprenticeships in the last year. I hope that every college and learning provider that values enterprise and ambition by putting Apprenticeships at the heart of their provision will encourage learners and employers to enter the awards and get the national recognition they deserve for their enthusiasm and dedication. Visit

So, my horse called “Skills”? His sense of competition and commitment is an example to us all. He really exists, he is an ex-racehorse who gave up one successful competitive career to refresh his skills and hone his competitive instincts that he is now using to good effect in a new career as a three-day eventer. So as we race forward in a competitive world, where both new and transferable skills are essential, my money’s on “Skills” all the way.

Geoff Russell is chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, part of the Business, Innovation and Skills Department


Read other FE News articles by Geoff Russell:

Looking forward to a year of longevity

FE future rests in collaboration and entrepreneurship

The SFA can adapt to CSR challenges, says CEO Geoff Russell

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