Grooming is big business, and beauty therapy courses are hugely popular. But with many students failing to achieve the key skills they need, the tutors are under the microscope. Grace McCann reports

The risqué world of Channel 4's reality television show The Salon has been turning young people on to beauty therapy. Despite scenes of ex-Bucks Fizz singer Cheryl Baker having colonic irrigation, the programme's blend of fun and glamour has prompted an increase in applications to beauty therapy courses across the country, according to Habia, the hairdressing and beauty therapy training council.

But becoming a professional pamperer is not as simple as enrolling on a course. An alarming report in 2002 from the Adult Learning Inspectorate rated more than half of all beauty therapy training unsatisfactory. The biggest concern was the number of students failing because their "key skills" were not up to scratch. Key skills are about literacy, numeracy and IT, and they are a non-negotiable part of work-based training schemes such as modern apprentices hips. Habia argues that it is the high level of the key skills components, and not the course providers, which is to blame. "A lot of students are struggling," says Gill Morris, a director of Habia. "The politest way of putting it is that the Government isn't listening as closely as it could to what people in the industry are saying."

Unrealistic government targets may be partly to blame for the worrying pass rates, but key skills aren't the only problem. Inspectors also found that many course providers are not tracking student progress well enough to be able to rescue those who are failing, says Sheila Willis of the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI). This leads students to fail or drop out.

Retention rates on beauty therapy courses are low. Some drop-outs are the result of young people having an unrealistic view of the industry. Working with lipstick and mascara might sound glamorous, but there are also floors to sweep and bikini lines to wax. All service industries are hard work and people might not appreciate this, says Morris.

Poorly performing training providers are going to have to get their act together to keep up with the booming beauty industry. "It's becoming more adaptable," says Anna Bowles, the head of training at one of the best institutions, the London College of Beauty Therapy. "You can work in local salons, department stores, spas, cruise ships, run your own business. And there are now so many specialities - holistic, such as Indian head massage or reflexology, nail technician..." There is even the possibility of becoming an in-flight beauty therapist with Virgin Atlantic.

It is possible to work in the industry without qualifications, but this is about to become more difficult. Westminster Council in London has been spearheading a crackdown on unlicensed salons.

Later this year, beauty therapy courses will be brought bang-up-to-date when Habia launches its latest training standards (this happens every few years). The 2004 changes will be radical, reflecting shifts in the industry such as the explosion of nail bars. NVQ Level 1, which covers a beauty assistant's role - manning reception, assisting a senior therapist with treatments such as facials, and so on - disappeared from the standards four years ago because it was felt that more highly qualified therapists were able to include these duties in their work. Level 1 is making a comeback, however, because bigger beauty salons require more delineation between roles. And a new level is being brought in - occupational standards in advanced practices - to cover hi-tech developments in the industry. This will allow awarding bodies to develop nationally recognised qualifications in techniques such as hair removal by laser or intense pulsed light, and non-surgical skin therapies such as photorejuvenation, says Tiffany Tarrant of Habia.

These changes mean that poorly rated providers will have to get to grips with the new standards when they are already struggling with their results. But Willis says that the ALI is optimistic. "Last year's chief executive's report showed a slightly better picture," she says. The key skills battle is being tackled by integrating tuition into the body of the course. For example, numeracy can be taught along with skills such as mixing up ratios of products like face masks or essential oils, says Jane Farr, the director of qualifications and standards at Habia.

The setting-up of centres of vocational excellence (Coves) is another important initiative in helping to drive up standards in vocational training, says Willis. So far, two institutions have Cove status for beauty therapy. Bradford College, and the Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies. Colleges offering beauty therapy courses run training salons offering cut-price treatments to the public, and Birmingham's director of studies, Gary Wood, is confident that his students' clients get pampered to industry standards. The salon offers everything from Indian head massage (£10 for two one-hour sessions) and men's chest-waxing (£8) to sessions in a dry flotation tank (£18 for 30 minutes). Coves highlight areas of good practice, says Willis. "And there is now a good practice database on the ALI's website that is an attempt to show all providers what they should be doing and how."


Emma Hobley, 19, is taking an NVQ Level 3 in beauty therapy at the Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies. The college runs a beauty therapy salon where students practice their skills on the public.

"The course isn't easy. We do anatomy and physiology so we're learning lots of the theory that trainee doctors have to learn. I enjoy getting stuck into the books because it's so different from most of the course, which is practical.

"Our customers are amazed by how much we know. Someone with a bad back might come in for a massage and we can name the different bones and tell them if they need to see a specialist.

"Level 3 covers body massage, aromatherapy and hi-tech treatments. I have already done NVQ Level 2, which covers manicures, pedicures, facials, make-up, eyelash- and eyebrow-tinting and waxing, and reception duties and sales techniques. [Emma is on a three-year course that includes hairdressing, but each NVQ would usually take one year].

"Aromatherapy is a big subject - you can study for years. I've learnt about different oils and know what will suit my clients. Lavender oil is good for cellulite, for example, so I would use that on a larger lady who suffers a lot with this problem. Then there is tea tree oil which is good for spotty skin.

"The only thing I find a bit tedious is waxing, but it doesn't really bother me.

"I love dealing with people. They might come in feeling a mess, but when they've had a treatment and a chat they leave looking uplifted. I find that really satisfying."