Ski instructors: You put your left knee in

The French have always been sniffy about British ski instructors. But later this month a race will signal the end of a 10-year dispute over the right of Brits to teach in France
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Weather permitting, a highly significant ski race will take place on 26 March at the Nevis Range resort in Scotland. The outcome of the race - or, more properly, "European Speed Test" - is unimportant, except to the participants; its significance lies in the fact that it is taking place at all. Because it will bring to a close the long-running dispute between the Aviemore-based British Association of Snowsport Instructors (BASI) and the French authorities over the right of British instructors to teach in ski resorts in France.

Weather permitting, a highly significant ski race will take place on 26 March at the Nevis Range resort in Scotland. The outcome of the race - or, more properly, "European Speed Test" - is unimportant, except to the participants; its significance lies in the fact that it is taking place at all. Because it will bring to a close the long-running dispute between the Aviemore-based British Association of Snowsport Instructors (BASI) and the French authorities over the right of British instructors to teach in ski resorts in France.

A current or former national-team ski racer will take the first timed run over a "giant slalom" course set up on the slopes. This will set a standard (adjusted by a coefficient reflecting the racer's individual ability) for the skiers taking part in the test, all of whom have fulfilled the other requirements of qualification as a BASI "grade-one" instructor. If, on the same course, they achieve a time within an 18 per cent margin above the standard set, they will then be qualified to teach not only in France but also - by virtue of an existing agreement between several Alpine countries - in Italy, Austria and Germany.

On the face of it, this development is hardly progressive. Driving instructors do not, for example, have to lap the Silverstone race track almost as fast as Nigel Mansell to prove their value as teachers. But it is the test of an instructor's ability to ski at speed that has been central to the 10-year conflict - at one stage involving the EU competition commissioner, Mario Monti - between Britain and France.

Most French ski resorts have evolved from small Alpine communities in which even inhabitants of the next valley were viewed with mistrust - let alone people from other countries who might compete for jobs which, by local standards, were well-paid. As France's ski-instruction system evolved, local schools were affiliated under the national umbrella organisation, the Eçole de Ski Francais; and, ultimately, a barrier against British instructors was formalised. Although BASI's highest, grade-one qualification (which already included a speed test) was recognised, the French specified that those who had achieved it should also pass an attestation d'équivalence, to prove that their skills were equivalent to those demanded for French instructors.

While free movement of labour is a key principle of EU law, the French argued - ostensibly on safety grounds - that BASI-qualified instructors should undergo the teste de capacité which formed part of the French training system, namely a slalom speed-test through close-set "gates", and a free run on which marks were awarded for style. The then chief executive of BASI, Bob Kinnaird, dismissed the link between the slalom and safety as "complete nonsense" a couple of years ago; and the argument that a ski instructor needed highly specialised slalom skills was widely derided. But the free run posed even more problems for British ski-instructors. "Style" was defined by French standards; the test had to be taken in France; and the marking was necessarily subjective.

As a result of sustained pressure from BASI, backed by members of both the British and European parliaments, the form of the skiing test for instructors - of whichever nationality - has now been changed. Effectively, the BASI grade-one qualification has been accepted by the French authorities. The result, according to the BASI chairman, Angus Meldrum, is that "throughout the French resorts it will be much easier for British skiers to find instructors at the highest level who can teach them in their own language".

The agreement negotiated with France's ministry of youth and sports, the French ski instructors' representative body and their union, is that the teste de capacité should be abolished. The European Speed Test which replaces it does not include a free run; and instead of a slalom course, ski instructors will be timed on a faster, giant slalom, with more widely spaced gates. The difference is important, says Meldrum, because "a giant slalom is more in tune with the skills that a ski instructor needs. To perform well in a slalom requires specialist training over one or two years; but any strong, high-performance skier can do a good giant slalom." (Meldrum refutes the Nigel Mansell analogy, arguing that the speed test is an effective way of judging an instructor's ability to ski skilfully in an emergency.)

Agreement on these principles - achieved last year - was one thing; giving them practical application is another. Hence the significance of this month's planned European Speed Test in Scotland. While BASI-qualified instructors who wanted to work in France were still required to take a final test in that country, the potential for discrimination against them remained.

But European Speed Tests will be held in each of the countries that are party to the agreement. "We have always thought that BASI grade one is as good as the French qualification," says Meldrum; and the Nevis Range test amounts to symbolic acceptance of that by the French.

There is still some way to go before British instructors can compete in France on - as it were - a level skiing slope. Although a number of them with the attestation d'équivalence have been hired by the Eçoles de Ski Francais (and many more by independent French schools), a more obvious source of employment in the short-term will be British-run schools in French resorts. Luckily, the commercial environment there is not so restrictive as, say, in Italy: Jeremy Edwards, director of the European Ski School in Les 2 Alpes, says that setting up such a school "is relatively easy in France, but practically impossible in Italy", where he lives.

Also, there remain some restrictions upon access to the apprenticeship system which allows French trainees, stagaires, to work at ski schools recognised as instructor-training establishments, teaching the lower-level pupils. Within the past month, the French government has awarded stagaire status to British trainees with the intermediate, BASI grade-two qualification; and some have already taken advantage of this development.

But the schools that have recognition as instructor-training establishments are all French-run (although the British-run Ski Supreme and New Generation, in Courchevel, have applied for it), and under current rules, schools must employ five qualified French instructors to achieve that status.

How long can these restrictions survive? At BASI's current rate of progress in negotiating the removal of barriers against British ski instructors in France, their future must be limited.

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