Welcome to a unique experiment in learning in the Arctic

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The Independent Online

It's not every day that the editor of Independent Educational Publishing gets to stand on pack ice at the edge of the North Pole, wearing only a fluorescent orange survival suit and a look of astonishment. However, before I start bemoaning my customary desk-bound existence, it's more pertinent to say that rarely do 40 school pupils from across the UK get to cross the 81st parallel either.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to be invited on this once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Arctic, organised by the educational foundation Edge with support from the International Space School Educational Trust (Isset). Edge's primary aim is to change people's perceptions towards vocational learning, establishing it as a meaningful alternative to academic study as opposed to a fallback option or last resort.

"What Edge is about is changing the world of education, and getting people to reconsider and value vocational education," says Vanessa Miner, director of Edge. "There's a lack of understanding about the range of things you can do outside of the academic route. There are a lot of different routes to success and actually understanding that and finding out what is best for your kids is part of it all."

The Arctic trip was all part of raising awareness; the inaugural competition last year saw students visiting NASA space centres in the United States. In both cases, students had to incorporate practical skills into their entries and the winners subsequently had the opportunity for hands-on learning during the trip itself. The 10,000 students who entered the "Ice Edge" competition had to come up with practical solutions for climate change problems, and on arrival in the Arctic joined in with experiments by marine biologists and other science experts. It was clear that all the students took a lot from it, with one saying: "The trip has given me an opportunity to see some of the uses of science in the real world - as opposed to the test tubes and text books we experience at school - and has made me want to pursue a scientific career."

That's one of many ringing endorsements, and Edge's investment in vocational learning doesn't stop there. They sponsor two city academies (in Nottingham and Milton Keynes), work with the Government and other policy makers to identify opportunities for changes in education and provide funding to organisations with initiatives that have the potential to move the curriculum forward.

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, shows his support in Edge's 2007 brochure. "We need those who are academically inclined to achieve, just as we have always done, but we also need to ensure that those who are vocationally gifted are motivated by having the chance to develop their talents, with useful and respected qualifications behind them."

The skills shortage at a professional level in the UK makes this drive all the more important. For example, in engineering, the number of students choosing to study at undergraduate level remained at 24,500 year on year between 1994 and 2004, while around 600,000 engineering graduates emerged from China in 2004. Obviously a marked population difference has to be taken into account, but what should also be noted is the presence of 164 vocational schools and colleges in Beijing, with a 98 per cent employment rate for graduates over the past six years.

Chris Barber, the founder and director of Isset, believes that vocational learning can inspire today's generation to arrest the UK's chronic lack of skills. "You can start off on a programme which is based around practical activities and that can lead you on, all the way up to higher education. It's a proper pathway to be on and one for people who had no route before to achieve their potential. All you have to do is be determined, put in the requisite amount of work and have proper guided tuition."

The chances to get involved are improving all the time. 2011 will see the WorldSkills Competition making an appearance in London. Dubbed the "Skills Olympics", it brings together young people from all over the world to test themselves against international standards and show off the skills of their trade. Also in the pipeline is the Edge Hotel: a hospitality training school where all the customer-facing roles will be taken up by students, getting real experience in a professional environment.

More imminent is Edge's competition for 2008 - students, parents and teachers alike should keep an eye on the website for further developments. And remember: practice makes perfect.

To find out more about Edge and for links to WorldSkills and other projects, visit www.edge.co.uk. You can find out more about Isset's work at www.isset.org

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