Special Report on National Training Awards: Olympians team up to show off their talent: Lynne Curry meets the gifted young people carrying the flag for Britain

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The Independent Online
RYAN BRUNT'S story is a sort of contemporary fairy tale. One week he was on a youth training course, ostensibly learning to be a gamekeeper but actually made to chop logs. The next, one Christmas Eve, he met his fairy god- mother (an accounts administrator at a cathedral stonemasonry). 'I'll do anything,' said the 16-year-old, begging for a job. 'We'll give you a week's trial,' said the administrator.

At the end of the week Ryan Brunt had carved a column base in stone at the Cheddar stonemasonry which serves Wells Cathedral. He was an out-of-work teenager with no academic qualifications, but the most remarkably talented craftsman to have wandered into the cathedral's province for years. In July Ryan, now 20 and acknowledged as possibly the best young stonemason in the country, is to represent the UK at the International Youth Skill Olympics.

This event, in existence for 40 years but little known, brings together youthful pre-eminence from different countries, much like the Olympic Games. The Skills Olympics, however, deals in earthier activities such as welding and agricultural mechanics. In an effort to demonstrate the importance of training for young people, the British team for the 1993 contest in Taipei was announced at the National Training Awards ceremony by Gillian Shepherd, Secretary of State for Employment.

UK Skills, a charitable organisation set up to help British industry promote world-class standards of vocational skills, pulls the team together from various national competitions including the UK Youth Arc Welding Championships, the Young Chef and Young Waiter of the Year, and Skillbuild, which covers trades such as bricklaying, painting and decorating, carpentry and stonemasonry.

Ryan Brunt, Britain's entry in the stonemasonry event, is still with Wells Cathedral stonemasons at their former railway station in Cheddar. 'I think our master mason thought he'd died and gone to heaven when he found this lad,' says Linda Williams, the accounts administrator who is alma mater to some 11 trainees at the yard.

'He is so good. At school they said he had a great gift and wanted him to try for a carpentry apprenticeship. But he wanted to be a gamekeeper and went as a trainee. They had him chopping logs for six months. He was away from home and miserable.

'He walked in here one Christmas Eve and asked if we had any jobs going. When I asked what he would do he said, 'Anything'. One of our apprentices had just left and we offered him a week's work experience. We wanted to employ him from day one. He just has a natural eye.'

UK Skills would like to see a national framework of competitions to recognise and encourage excellence in young people in craft and technical fields.

Sir John Cassels, director of the National Commission on Education, who has chaired UK Skills since its inception in 1990, says practical skills have been overlooked for too long. 'We tend to neglect those of practical bent who could be the technicians, foremen and craftsmen of the future. Many of those we do train, we train to high standards - but we do not give anything like enough young people the encouragement and the opportunity to learn those skills. National recognition not only pays tribute to people's achievements but also motivates others to attain the highest standards.'

The selection of this year's British team has yielded some surprising results. For example, the two hairdressing entrants come not from a monochrome London basement with second-mortgage prices but from the same West Country chain, whose most cosmopolitan salon is in Weston-


Tina Silk, 20 - one of only three female members of the team - and Wayne Hill, 21, both work for Robert John, which also dresses hair in the small towns of Clevedon, Yatton and Portishead, near Bristol.

Their boss, Robert John, surname Hancock, is in the senior men's team in the hairdressers' World Cup. Hairdressers, unlike other crafts, have been glorying in their own internal competitions for years.

(Photograph omitted)