Sweeping Away Old Stereotypes: Why I Signed Up For The NVQ – And How It Benefits EVERYONE

As someone who can usually spot a good thing pretty quickly, the path to my latest qualification was – forgive the pun – a ‘slow burn’.

12 months ago, an NVQ in chimney sweeping was probably the last thing from my mind.

I was aware that such a qualification was available. It had been widely discussed within industry circles, but didn’t really see the value in it for myself.

After all, as I’ve said in previous posts, no formal qualifications, registrations or memberships are needed whatsoever to become a chimney sweep.

Notwithstanding that, I felt it important to submit myself for assessments and training.

To that end, I’d already achieved Master Sweep status with the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps, had been a HETAS Approved Sweep for two and a half years and was a registered solid fuel installer with OFTEC.

To achieve all those, I’d had to sit a mixture of written and practical exams/assessments.

Did I really need any more ‘badges’?

Shaking Off The Sterotypes

Part of my approach towards NVQs is probably coloured by my younger years.

As someone who went through the education system of the 80s and 90s and ended up with a university degree, NVQs were seen as a bit of a second fiddle qualification.

Indeed, when at school and college, NVQ was routinely dubbed as meaning ‘Not Very Qualified’. Kids are nothing if not cruel at times.

Standard grainy photo of yours truly at school in the 1990s. I was probably thinking more about Oasis and football, than the finer points of vocational qualifications, at this time…

I recall repeating this schooldays memory at an NVQ presentation held at the Guild of Master Sweeps’ trade show a few years ago. I don’t think it won me many friends, but it was unfortunately true. And the perception does sort of linger among some.

So what changed? Well, a few things to be honest.

Firstly – and I feel there’s no shame in saying this – there was an element of peer pressure.

Many friends and colleagues in the sweeping industry who I respect and continue to learn from were starting to achieve their Level 2 qualification.

While I don’t normally feel the need to follow a crowd, I felt this particular one was well worth joining. Many had a similar background and outlook as myself.

It wasn’t just a qualification for people who had attained little at school – something I’d kind of thought it was – it was clearly becoming an increasingly important and respected standard for an industry I’m passionate about.

Also, there was a question of semantics. Even as someone who is Guild registered and HETAS approved sweep, I hadn’t achieved an actual formal qualification.

They were assessments as a condition of entry, so in effect memberships, which could be discontinued at anytime.

Many will say they are qualified when they’re actually not. It’s not because they’re being deliberately misleading, they just don’t understand the difference.

The NVQ, on the other hand, is a lifetime qualification. It only expires when I do. Bit like GCSEs, O-Levels, A-levels, degrees, BTECs, HNDs and so on.

And thirdly – perhaps most importantly – I started to realise that a qualification would open doors for my business that had, up until now, either been firmly shut or more difficult to prise open.

So, having devoured a huge slice of Humble Pie, I signed up.

With fellow NVQ qualified sweeps Lee Langdon (left) and Chris Mooney on a trip the Swedish Master Sweeps Training School in early 2020

The NVQ Process

The process itself is painless and, apart from a small bit of paperwork, it didn’t really impinge on my day to day business.

It started with a Profiling Interview. Over the course of about two hours or so, I was asked various questions about my knowledge of regulations, best working practices and so on. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I knew.

When you do a job day in, day out, you sort of forget how much stuff you actually do know and absorb. You just take it as a given.

As a result of the Profiling Interview, I was deemed suitable to continue on the NVQ pathway. Had I not been, there would have been feedback, identifying gaps in knowledge and I would have been signposted to further training.

You don’t ‘fail’ your NVQ, you’re simply on the pathway.

The next step was the on-site work assessment. This basically consisted of a vehicle inspection, some more Q&A, and an observation assessment of me at work.

It was early summer so I had a busy day with several chimneys to sweep and inspect.

Although I was being filmed during this, I didn’t feel any sense of worry or nerves. I just treated it like a normal working day; did the same things I normally do and chatted to customers in the usual way.

In fact, many were quite impressed and interested to hear that their sweep was undertaking a formal qualification. I would have thought most customers wouldn’t have cared one bit about it. It was the exact opposite.

Once all the footage had been assessed, and a bit more paperwork had been completed, I received news that I’d achieved my Level 2 NVQ in chimney sweeping.

And to my surprise, when the certificate landed on the doormat, I felt a real sense of pride – much more than I imagined.

It was a recognition that my skills and everything I know are up to a high standard and, moreover, now reflected in a lifetime qualification.

As anyone who works by themselves will tell you, it’s sometimes hard to know what you’re doing is right or wrong. You just do what you do, and there’s nobody to tell you otherwise really. You can reach out for advice, but the feedback can vary wildly depending on who you ask.

In terms of how it has helped day to day, it has given me a lot more confidence and, as such, has allowed me to offer a better, more efficient and greater level of service to customers.

Attaining the NVQ also allowed me to apply for a CSCS Skilled Worker Card. This has opened numerous doors to commercial opportunities which weren’t there beforehand.

It’s now grown into Mr Soot Commercial, a comprehensive sweeping, inspecting and testing service for a whole range of business premises, heritage properties and construction sites. Having a CSCS Card is a major advantage in this regard.

Although only launched this week, I’ve already had several enquiries and there’s some exciting projects coming up across the North and a bit further afield.

Securing A Brighter Future

In terms of the wider chimney sweeping industry, the NVQ is, to my mind, can only be a positive step towards greater recognition for the crucial, but sometimes very undervalued, role sweeps undertake.

After all, qualifications form the foundation of any trade as a measure of the minimum levels of competence that are needed. Chimney sweeping is no different.

By introducing a standard minimum level via an NVQ, all qualified chimney sweeps are assessed against government agreed criteria.

This has several benefits; it lifts the outdated and inaccurate perception of the chimney sweep from a low skilled job that anyone can do, to proper trade status with all the authority and responsibility that comes with it.

At the moment, an extremely knowledgeable sweep’s accurate advice can very often be sidelined by someone with a perceived higher status than them. The phrase ‘You’re just a sweep, you just shove a brush up a chimney. What do you know?’ is all too common.

The funny thing is, the retort is usually ‘A heck of a lot more than you!’

This knowledge is garnered from years of working on chimneys and appliances, troubleshooting and problem solving. This usually involves installations which have been in use for a long time, and their showroom shine has long since vanished.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called to a property by a desperate homeowner who is at the end of their tether with a particular problem. They’ve usually had two or three ‘engineers’ in who have told them various stuff, but the issue persists.

Very often I go in, do a few tests, pinpoint the problem accurately and either advise what steps need to be taken or leave the customer an appliance which now works perfectly fine.

I’m not unique in that regard, many of my fellow professionals can tell a similar story.

If only the customers in question had hired a knowledgeable sweep in the first place…

However, times are changing and recognition is not limited to private customers.

Many commercial customers require all workers to hold a formal qualification. Local authority and social housing contracts often stipulate that qualified tradespeople are preferred for their work.

It takes some of the risk away from those making the decisions about who to hire. If a chimney sweep is actually qualified, they know that a good level of service will be given and that the reports and advice given can be relied upon.

In the UK, we have made massive strides away from the outdated, inaccurate stereotypes of sweeping.

Today’s chimney sweeps are now at the forefront of so much in the solid fuel industry.

Collectively, we:

⁃ Visit more properties than anyone else in the solid fuel industry in a given year

⁃ Provide onsite, bespoke advice on appliance usage, building regulations, fuel choice and storage

⁃ Give environmental information via the sweeps-led Burnright campaign and other initiatives

⁃ Can give impartial advice on the best stoves and woodburners

⁃ Help prevent incidents of Carbon Monoxide by testing chimneys for leaks, removing birds nests/other blockages, and fitting birdguards

Add an army of officially qualified sweeps on top of all that and it’s not hard to see a very bright future for sweeps, our customers, suppliers and manufacturers.

It also benefits the general pubic at large, most of who don’t have a solid fuel appliance but will have cleaner air in their neighbourhood as a result of the advice we give to those who do use wood and multi fuel fireplaces.

In conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process and can honestly say that I learnt a great deal as a result.

Credit must go to Chimney Skills Training, whose decision to offer this at work, rather than in-the-classroom, NVQ qualification makes it much more accessible to so many fellow professional sweeps.

A big thanks as well to my assessor and fellow qualified sweep Josh Firkins, who I also learned a lot from. Even though the process is now complete, I continue to find Josh’s advice and guidance invaluable.

So, despite my initial scepticism, would I recommend the NVQ?

Yes I would. In fact, I’d go as far to say that I’d encourage all sweeps who are dedicated and passionate about our industry to seriously consider it.

I don’t care if you’re hundreds of miles away or around the corner from me, the value this has to our collective future as sweeps as a trade, and as individuals, shouldn’t be underestimated.

And if you’re reading this as a consumer, next time you book a sweep, you may want to look up whether a qualified sweep covers your area.

Although there are comparatively few at the moment, the numbers are growing.

And with the support of the sweeping associations and the Federation of British Chimney Sweeps, I’m sure there will be many more of us in the years ahead…

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