I’d been warned about the heat and humidity in Hanoi, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared, and the threatened storms never arrived.  The sheer number of motorbikes and mopeds meant that there was always a smoggy haze, but we still got a very decent view from the meeting rooms of our hotel down town.  It’s greener than I thought it would be – there had been heavy showers the night before we arrived that had filled the run off channels and brightened the trees.

I would have loved to have seen more of the city – the people we met were amazingly welcoming and generous – but apart from a quick trip into the night market, our time here was dedicated to exploring vocational education around the world.

The British Council’s Bringing the Learning Home conference has grown in size and stature since they arranged the first event in Cairo six years ago, and this year had around 200 attendees from 16 countries.  High profile industry representatives from Rolls Royce, Microsoft and our local partners Viglacera made stirring contributions by stating again and again the importance of employer engagement in education, and particularly in ensuring young people develop the right skills for jobs in the future.

So-called “soft skills” were very much on the agenda, with colleges, employers, and governments all recognising the importance of flexbility, improvision, self-management and proactivity amongst their best employees and learners.  These are the skills that really set people apart in the 21st century, when labour is increasingly mobile and competition for the best jobs is international.  How to teach these skills though?  Helping the education managers and teachers to learn is an important first step; helping them to understand that these are not dry academic skills that can be learnt from a book.  They must be developed in practical ways, through experience, through trial and error in safe environments.  Perfecting this approach needs new skills throughout the education system is a challenge in Vietnam, Yemen, South Africa, or any of the other countries present at the conference – and that includes the UK.

We have by no means mastered vocational education at home.  Despite apprenticeships being near the top of the agenda for all of the mainstream UK political parties, the vocational and FE system is still disfunctional in many places.

Employer leadership and engagement is vital, of course, and must be further developed, but employers need help and guidance if they are to create quality systems and standards that cover whole industries.  This is especially true where industries contian large numbers of small companies, like printers or furniture makers.  People working in, or managing, smaller companies have much less time to dedicate to the sorts of educational projects that result in national standards or apprenticeships, but their passion for passing on their experience and skills is just as intense as those in larger companies.

So there is a lot of work to do at home and abroad, but there are some very commited and passionate people available to do it as well.  It was a pleasure to meet with colleagues, old friends, and new partners in Vietnam to explore the best ways forward in the UK and abroad.

And to top it all off, we won the British Council’s International Skills Partnership of the Year award for our work in Egypt with Petra ETP.  I’m delighted that our work there has been recognised in this way. Our partnership has made a real difference to the way that employers and educational establishements are working together in Egypt.  2,500 jobseekers have received training, two new employer training centres have been established, and new opportunities have been opened up for women looking to enter industry – more than 50% of Petra’s current students are female…and these numbers will keep on increasing.

And we’re not finished there.  We’ll be back in Cairo again next month, helping the national regulators to learn from our partnerships to date and starting to roll out changes at a national level.  It’s not always been smooth sailing – partnership working never is – but it’s inspiring to see the difference our work is making to people around the globe.  Attending Bringing the Learning Home certainly brought that home to me.