WorldSkills: Inspiring the Next Generation

Sue Carney

Sue Carney

WorldSkills: Inspiring the Next Generation, a guest post by Sue Carney!

Last week I took part in an event that proved to have massive impact, not only on me, but on the others taking part, the organisers and all those observing, and there were about 100 thousand of them.

My involvement began in the cells of an old police station in Bolton, North West England. In its day, it would have been a grim place to be incarcerated, but today it’s a training college, although the cells and old courtroom remain. What more fitting a location to hold the heats for the first ever WorldSkills forensic science competition?

WorldSkills International is an association open to agencies or bodies that promote vocational education and training in their respective countries. It provides a unique comparison of world-class competency standards in traditional trade and craft skills and in more recent technological and multi-skilled vocations.

WorldSkills UK is a member organisation of WorldSkills International. It is run by the Skills Funding Agency in partnership with organisations from industry and education. It supports regional competitions and hosts The Skills Show, a flagship national competition from which, outstanding competitors may be selected to represent team GB at WorldSkills International’s biennial skills competition. WorldSkills UK aims to “stimulate ambition and aspiration in young people, prove how expert skills generate a more productive workforce and demonstrate our nations exceptional talent on the global stage.

Back at the cells in Bolton, on a balmy June summers day, a selection of rather nervous forensic science students from the University of Central Lancashire were donning their masks, zipping up their scene suits and checking their kits ready to enter 3 identical crime scenes in three of the cells. The scenes depicted the aftermath of a prison break in which a guard had been assaulted. Each competitor in this regional heat, had a set time period in which to enter the scene, recover all relevant evidence, package it correctly, following appropriate anti-contamination procedure and complete a scene log, including a detailed diagram of the scene with measurements. All this whilst their every move was being scrutinised by one of three expert judges: Philip Boyce, Adam McCarthy and me in the role of lead judge.

Philip Boyce checks competitors' scene logs

Philip Boyce checks competitors’ scene logs. Photo by Sue Carney.

After the scene, competitors prepared a report detailing their scene strategy and hypotheses as to what had occurred in the incident. The competitors had also prepared posters depicting the very relevant subject of anti-contamination at scenes of crime.

Judging the competition was painstaking. Competitors were marked on their technical capabilities and reasoning at the scene, their correct use of equipment and protective clothing, their packaging of exhibits in order to maintain chain of custody, the style and content of their reports and the visual impact, fitness of purpose, technical accuracy and grammatical correctness of their posters. The standard of work was extremely high and needless to say, the judges had a tough task on their hands.

Fast forward to 13 November 2013: The judges arrive at the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre to add the final touches to the crime scenes that will form a major element of the Forensic Science competition final. Competition organiser, Gary Howard of C.P.D.M.S. has slaved over the entire concept for countless weeks prior to the show. None of us at this stage has anticipated the sheer scale of the Skills Show 2013, although the opening ceremony, which features almost 650 competitors representing around 60 different skills competitions marching in procession across the stage, gives some indication.

We arrive at the NEC early the next morning for day 1 of the forensic science competition. There’s an atmosphere of ‘calm before the storm’ as we make our way to the exhibition stand; the competitors with expressions of resolute determination and the judges knowing that this will be an even longer day for them.

After a morning briefing, the first competitors enter their scenes just before 9am. The crime being investigated is an armed robbery of a post office. There are real bullet holes in the glass above the counter, lovingly prepared at the firing range by Philip Boyce, especially for this event. Cash and discarded shell casings litter the floor, along with glass debris, a balaclava abandoned during the incident and a trail of blood spots. The CCTV camera on the wall has been shot and a bullet is still lodged inside. There is also a bullet lodged in the rear wall and numerous fingerprints to locate and recover. No suspects have been apprehended at this stage of the investigation and the competitors have their work cut out for them.

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Gary Howard, competition organiser, points out some fingerprints

Gary Howard, competition organiser, points out some fingerprints. Photo by Kevin Pritchard of UCLan.

Half an hour into the scene examination, a stroppy and impatient senior investigating officer wants an update, which only increases the pressure felt by the competitors. This is not unlike real life and the competitors must give their initial hypotheses of events at the scene and talk the SIO through the evidence they will recover.

An hour in, and the competitors are told that the SIO has authorisation for an urgent lab submission and they must nominate one exhibit that in their view, is most likely to provide useful intelligence to help identify a potential suspect, and justify their choice.

After four hours the scene examination is over, exhibits have been packaged and logged and the competitors breathe sighs of relief. After lunch, the scenes are reset and the remaining competitors enter. Meanwhile, group one are locked away writing up their evidential statements.

Over dinner that evening, it’s immediately apparent that these students, whilst competing against each other in this exceedingly high pressure environment are beginning to form a close-knit team. The students didn’t know each other before the competition, yet tonight, they are offering their competitors encouragement and talking about the ‘WorldSkills family’. It is heart warming.

Day 2 dawns and we jump from the very start to the very end of the forensic science process. The competitors have a trial awaiting, literally, and they haven’t experienced this in the competition so far. Today, they will present their evidence in a court of law. They will face the judges in the roles of prosecution Counsel, defence Counsel and Judge and will be given a difficult time, particularly by defence (yours truly) who will challenge their accuracy, honesty, and try every tactic to tempt them into giving unqualified opinions outside their areas of expertise.

The running order for group 1 is drawn. Meanwhile group 2 are locked away writing their evidential statements from yesterday’s scene. The first witness enters the courtroom with trepidation to find that there is an audience of members of the public watching the proceedings. Not only that, noise is filtering in from the other stands and competitions across the NEC and the witnesses must project their voices to be heard. As if this exercise isn’t difficult enough!

Competitor, Jenni Keranen, is questioned in the witness box by competition judge, Adam McCarthy

Competitor, Jenni Keranen, is questioned in the witness box by competition judge, Adam McCarthy. Photo by Kevin Pritchard of UCLan.

All competitors cope admirably with the challenges faced in the witness box. For the most part, they give an impression of professionalism, confidence and knowledge, even when one of them is accused of pocketing some of the recovered cash and popping off to the public house down the road for a few pints during their scene examination! Inevitably all the students are overly self-critical of their performances in the witness box, but we explain that everyone was given an equally difficult time. The competition is concluded after the witness box exercises, but the judges stay behind to discuss marks.

Later that evening, we watch presentations created by the competitors on the role of the first responder at the crime scene. These have been playing on a continuous loop for members of the public visiting the forensic science competition, but we haven’t had chance to watch them yet.

Saturday is our final day at the NEC. The competitors spend the morning engaging with members of the public by explaining and demonstrating forensic recovery techniques whilst the judges are ensconced checking and rechecking the final scores. Just before 11 am, the results are in! We have gold, silver and bronze medalists, but we are sworn to secrecy until this evening’s closing ceremony.

In the afternoon, we deliver group and individual feedback to the competitors. Adam and I also enter the crime scenes and deliver an impromptu blood pattern analysis class for the competitors and members of the public who are gathering around. Special thanks go to Finley Howard-Stevens, competition admin and general logistics assistant, for being the fall guy in our BPA class by dutifully suiting up and becoming the target for impact spatter produced in several experiments.

For the closing ceremony that evening, we are joined by VIP guests Home Office Forensic Regulator, Andrew Rennison and Communications director of The Forensic Science Society, Karen Squibb-Williams. There’s a sense of anticipation as we watch the show and wait for the medals to be awarded. Our competitors sit together at a separate table unaware of whose names will be announced. We are all wishing we could see the winners’ faces at that moment.

The forensic science competitors wait patiently for the results to be announced

The forensic science competitors wait patiently for the results to be announced. Photo by Kevin Pritchard of UCLan.

Laura Bailey is awarded the gold medal in forensic science by UK forensic regulator, Andrew Rennison

Laura Bailey is awarded the gold medal in forensic science by UK forensic regulator, Andrew Rennison. Photo by Kevin Pritchard of UCLan.

Finally, the medalists’ names are announced and displayed on huge screens above the stage. Bronze goes to Claire Pickering, silver to Jacob Payne and the gold medal is presented to a very proud Laura Bailey by our VIP guest, Andrew Rennison. Well done to them all!

As the party continues into the night, I reflect on the journey undertaken by these young people. They have demonstrated resilience, determination, professionalism and an amazing team spirit. They have coped with every challenge presented to them and even those competitors who weren’t awarded medals are talking about the benefits of this experience and how much they have enjoyed it. It was an immense honour to be asked to judge in this competition. WorldSkills and the Skills Show are indeed events to inspire young minds, but it has to be said that this group of young people has inspired me.

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