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Young people changed the election result; they’re changing lives too

Wednesday, 14 Jun 2017

Dr Neil Bentley, Chief Executive, WorldSkills UK

The British Council’s survey of perceptions of the UK post-Brexit contains some really interesting findings. It asked young people across the world what they thought of us before the EU referendum and then asked the same questions once the dust had settled on the result. In general, Brexit has not drastically altered the way we are seen. However, we can’t get away from the fact that Brexit is a contentious subject domestically, particularly amongst young people, who were more likely to have voted to remain. So whilst for the rest of the world it’s a case of business as usual, we are left with some pressing questions.

The most immediate of these for me is how young people are feeling about Brexit as they will live longest with the settlement. Here the survey provides pause for thought. Young people in Britain think the rest of the world views us less favourably as a result of last June’s referendum. Forty-two per cent say that Brexit has had a negative impact on the UK’s attractiveness, compared to the 21 per cent who believe it’s had a positive impact. In actual fact, young people internationally think more positively of the UK post-Brexit, with 32 per cent sharing this view and a further 36 per cent saying it makes no difference. There’s a big perception/reality disconnect here which needs addressing.

That's why WorldSkills UK fully supports the report’s recommendation for young Britons being supported to develop what it calls ‘global awareness’. The Government has made a lot of the concept of Global Britain as the blueprint for our approach post-Brexit and WorldSkills UK is uniquely placed to take a full part in this. We belong to a network of over 75 nations internationally as members of WorldSkills – thinking globally is what we do. Whilst WorldSkills members speak many different languages, our values and vision are shared: the belief that skills can empower young people and change their lives.

At WorldSkills UK we offer our young people the gateway to a global future. Every young person who enters one of our skills competitions has the same chance, the chance to represent their nation and take part in the best international exchange programme there is – Team UK. Team UK trains and competes internationally every year – last December it was Sweden, this October they’ll be in the UAE. In recent years they’ve been to Brazil, Canada and Japan. In two years Russia is the destination. I think you get the picture. This kind of exposure to different cultures, different ways of doing things is an immense learning opportunity. Not only are Team UK competing in different countries, they’re competing against all our major competitors – France, Germany, China, India, the US – at the same time. This is what Global Britain means. Speaking to, learning from, and yes, competing against, the rest of the world. This is how our young people can be equipped to make the most of Brexit.       

Young people made their voice heard in last week’s general election. The best estimates suggest that over 20% more 18-24-year-olds voted than in 2015’s general election. That’s a remarkable figure. At this election, young people proved the commentarial and pollsters wrong. Tweet after tweet, article after article cautioned during the campaign that ‘young people don’t vote’ and that our assumptions about the final result must follow this logic.  What the commentators and pollsters were guilty of is sadly nothing new: writing young people off. It’s unlikely the same mistake will be made again with the votes of young people likely to have played a considerable role in the election result we woke up to last Friday.

It showed what those of us who have the privilege of working with young people already know to be true: that they are engaged, enthused and passionate about what they believe in and about helping shape a better future.

At WorldSkills UK our best ambassadors are the young people we work with. And we have an incredibly dedicated group of role models - our skills champions - who are former students and apprentices who’ve excelled in their careers by competing in our skills competitions. They are simply some of the best in the UK and many have gone on to represent the UK in the European and global finals of skills competitions and have the medals to prove it. They know the difference that competing has made to their own lives, careers, and futures; and what’s so inspiring is that they want to help develop the next generation to follow in their footsteps.

That's why our skills champions have been working with us and the Careers & Enterprise Company in areas of the country where good quality careers advice is needed most. They’ve been going into schools and talking to thousands of pupils about their experiences and giving a fresh, authentic perspective on apprenticeships and technical education – transforming preconceptions and opening up life-changing, exciting new opportunities. Feedback suggests this peer-to-peer careers advice is the way forward: 76% of pupils feel inspired after speaking to one of our role models and 100% of teachers are satisfied. Pretty impressive results!!

At WorldSkills UK we are not complacent about the benefits of young people engaging in and leading our work. It’s why we are working on our new youth strategy which will give the young people we work with an even bigger say in how WorldSkills UK works to reach out and impact even more young people. That's also why we are organizing a Youth Summit in November. As an organisation that exists to help accelerate young people's personal and professional development, I believe that this is a vital step in our evolution. I was delighted to see that the newly launched Institute for Apprenticeships is also taking this approach, with young people – including two of our skills champions – guiding its work through its apprentices’ panel.

Organisations that realise the value of young people’s insights are infinitely better for drawing on it. Commentators, pollsters, and yes, politicians, should take note! 

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