The lack of jobs in England which require a licence to practice shows the country does not place a high value on skills, a leading academic has said.

Lorna Unwin, professor emerita in vocational education at the UCL’s Institute of Education, called for a “cultural shift” on the licences during an FE Week webcast on the Skills for Jobs white paper, held today.

Unwin, along with Federation of Awarding Bodies chief executive Tom Bewick and NOCN Group chief executive Graham Hasting-Evans, was discussing how England’s vocational system could “beat” Germany’s – which is a goal of education secretary Gavin Williamson.

Unwin said most of England’s politicians “never mention” Germany’s “regulated labour market”.

She called it a “huge stick and a carrot for employers to have a really good commitment to training” which involves a much wider use of licences to practice than in our system.

Pilots for licences to practice?

Licences to practice are where workers have to train and be certified at a standard set out by a professional body to fill a particular occupation, such as a doctor.

Unwin said England has “very, very, very” few licences to practice, which means: “I could set myself up as an electrician tomorrow, if I wanted to.

“I could certainly cut your hair and do toenails, with no training.”

This, she said, showed “we don’t value a lot of jobs, or we think for lots of jobs you just need a bit of induction and you pick it up as you go along”.

But Covid-19 had “exposed all of the occupations that the country relies on to keep going, that people generally just dismiss”.

Unwin said there needed to be a “cultural shift” around the licences, focusing on “to what extent we can develop the notion across more occupations”.

Her comments come after education secretary Gavin Williamson promised in his speech to the Conservative Party conference in 2019 that England would “overtake Germany in the opportunities we offer to those studying technical routes by 2029”.

FE Week editor Nick Linford, who was chairing the discussion, compared the lack of licences to practice in England to when a recruitment shortage for teachers led to a debate about recruiting unqualified staff.

“The downside is,” he added, “that anyone and everyone could potentially do it and what does that say about your kind of your belief in the value of your skills system”.

Unwin agreed, posing the question: “They wouldn’t withdraw training from brain surgeons, even if there was a shortage. So why do it for teachers?”

She proposed a pilot of licences to practice in some sectors, to figure out what they might look like and whether it could be linked to progression from level 3 up to level 5.

However, she did warn that it could create “bottlenecks” around entry into the labour market.

Construction ‘miles ahead of everybody else’

One area of England’s jobs market which makes heavy use of licences to practice is construction.

For instance, NOCN Group offers two “job cards” for the sector to “provide proof individuals have the required training and qualifications for the type of work they carry out”: one under the Construction Plant Competence Scheme, and another for the Construction Industry Scaffolders Record Scheme.

Hasting-Evans said certain sectors, such as construction, are “going miles ahead of everybody else” in using licences.

Pictured top (clockwise from top left): Graham Hasting-Evans, Nick Linford, Lorna Unwin, Tom Bewick

Watch the full webcast here:


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