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  Polish your skills

Are BICSc cleaning standards truly valued by FM service providers? Anne Lennox-Martin looks at how the institute has had to adapt to protect the value of its accreditation scheme

17 May 2012

How do you know that the cleaning operatives or housekeepers employed through a third party to work on your site are sufficiently competent to achieve the desired standard? With output specifications considered best practice by most FM procurement specialists, does it even matter? Is it an internal matter for bidders or is some external validation required to assess an organisation’s credibility in the marketplace? 

For 50 years, the British Institute of Cleaning Science (BICSc) has set professional cleaning standards and developed cleaning training courses that are then delivered by accredited training providers. Nevertheless, many facilities managers still believe that BICSc is a provider of training services, not the body aiming to maintain recognised standards in the cleaning industry. Indeed, even within the institute, some corporate members are not sure of its purpose.

Throughout the relatively short lifetime of FM, the phrase “trained to BICSc standards” has been used as both a client requirement and a cleaning company’s claim as a standard. It now appears that the phrase has been used even when no BICSc individual accreditation has been sought or awarded to those who undertook the institute’s Cleaning Operative Proficiency Certificate Stages 1/2 and 3 training. Now, with the advent of new courses in the Cleaning Professional’s Skills Suite (CPSS), BICSc is looking to tighten up on its accreditation procedures and the use of its brand.

A widespread issue 
BICSc chief executive Stan Atkins believes that no one knows how many people are employed as cleaning operatives in the UK. Estimates based on official figures for commercial cleaning suggest the figure is anywhere between 800,000 and one million operatives employed at any one time on 15 hours or more of work a week.

Historically, BICSc has issued between 20,000 and 25,000 individual Cleaning Operative Proficiency Course (COPC) certificates a year, but as these are one-off certificates, the institute cannot say what percentage of the workforce is currently accredited.
Karen Waterlow, specialist adviser, FM & Cleaning Services at sector skills organisation Asset Skills sympathises with the institute.

“The accreditation process is an opportunity that’s been missed by many in the cleaning sector,” says Waterlow. “The widespread perception in the population at large and in government, that cleaning skills and training is not of great value, has long been a source of frustration for those providing the service. Accredited training should be a key element in changing perceptions of the cleaning industry.”

Until now, BICSc has not had any process in place to monitor its standards. This has led to confusion and, in some cases, deception in the way the BICSc standard has been claimed by some cleaning companies to impress clients and win business. Equally, it has until now been possible to be trained and assessed by accredited BICSc assessors yet not receive individual recognition through certification. Thus, some companies have been able to claim that staff are ‘trained to BICSc standards’, when in fact the courses they have been on were not accredited by BICSc at all, just run on similar lines.

There are several reasons for this. Atkins confesses to a lack of foresight within the institute, but the principal reason has been the cost to the cleaning company of accrediting its BICSc assessors and obtaining individual certificates for its operatives when they reach the required standard. With such a focus on margins, clients will take any opportunity to save on cost once business has been won – and training costs have always been a savings target.

If a cleaning service provider could claim it was meeting BICSc standards without the evidence of this claim actively policed, it’s perhaps not surprising that some will have taken advantage of the lack of client understanding and the absence of a sufficiently robust BICSc process. Some cleaning companies have also seen BICSc as an overly bureaucratic organisation, something Atkins is addressing through the development of more streamlined administrative procedures to make accreditation a smoother process.

However, Julie Kortens, head of facilities management at Channel 4 is keen to underline the importance cleaning standards should play in the selection of a cleaning service provider. “We have recently been out to tender on a TFM solution and cleaning was obviously an integral part of the process,” says Kortens. “We were keen to work with a service partner who took training seriously, so recognised standards such as NVQs and the BICSc Operative Proficiency Levels were key to this.”

The main drawback for employers in using BICSc training products is that not all of the courses are on the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) and thus do not attract government funding. The institute has only one qualification on the framework – the BICSc Level 1 Certificate in Cleaning. Karen Waterlow believes the current system is flawed, describing the QCF requirement as a “one-size fits all approach, not always the most appropriate starting level in cleaning”.

City & Guilds has an NVQ in cleaning at Levels 1, 2 and 3, while there are apprenticeships available, for example, in periodic cleaning and window cleaning. Some further education colleges attract funding by adding literacy to the core cleaning training, while some providers go as far as claiming that “our training is based on BICSc” – potentially infringing BICSc’s intellectual property rights.

Commercial advantage
Many major FM companies that include cleaning in their service offerings have developed their own academies and training standards – but these have no external third-party validation.

Atkins says that BICSc would not seek to place its new CPSS courses on the QCF, as this would restrict the model that BICSc has developed and dilute the training requirement of the accreditation. He knows that there are routes to training other than BICSc courses and that the commercial advantage gained by any cleaning employer using the BICSc accreditation cannot be measured without appropriate research.

FM clients may use BICSc to validate that their chosen cleaning providers are doing what they promised in their bid, but if that’s the requirement then it’s important that the procedure is followed.

In one example, a client took on a contract in which the provider had committed to training all its existing and new staff to COPC Level 1 in the first six months. When it requested validation that this had happened, BICSc was unable to do so because it had no record of the attendees. This led to the client’s legal team becoming involved and a flurry of certificate requests from the provider to demonstrate compliance to the contract requirement. A significant embarrassment could have been avoided by the provider if it had followed the normal accreditation process.

Marilyn Standley, the first chair of the BIFM, believes that BICSc has a role to play in the same way as BIFM has developed qualifications for our sector. “I recognise that standards are a great help to clients and procurement specialists in assessing quality,” says Standley. “The drive to give cleaning operatives the London Living Wage becomes credible if clients can be assured that their cleaning staff have been professionally trained and can demonstrate competence through BICSc accreditation. I would like to see more research carried out into the risks of employing untrained staff and the benefits of accredited training on issues such as improved retention.”

For Atkins, the true benefits are for the cleaning operative who acquires a transferable recognised qualification and becomes more productive, thus raising morale. Multiply this by the team and there is an impact on the quality and cost of the cleaning operation.

What’s in a name? 
Historically, the BICSc ‘brand’ has been synonymous with best practice in the cleaning industry. But the wider implications of how it was being applied are not fully understood. Do professional FMs believe BICSc has an important role in maintaining and improving standards in the cleaning industry and are we prepared to pay for the training and accreditation required from the employer? Is the way forward for FMs, as client representatives, to require cleaning operatives to achieve the CPSS MU qualification as a minimum standard, with the appropriate skills needed for their role certificated by BICSc? 
The way forward
For the past 18 months, BICSc has been setting up a more stringent but flexible training model that it calls the Cleaning Professionals Skills Suite (CPSS). This has seen the development of three mandatory units and a further 25 core cleaning skills – a menu for each cleaning operative’s employer to select what they need in the workplace.

In return for passing the assessment for the mandatory units, a candidate becomes an individual member of the institute at the PBICSc grade (Practitioner) and receives a personal MU card, valid for three years, confirming the mandatory units gained in the suite. 

Core to the new focus on robust accreditation and protection of BICSc’ IIP and brand is the role of the verifier, who is now directly employed by BICSc to monitor and review standards, rather than freelance moderators who were used in a system that was open to poor control and even abuse in a minority of cases. Andrew Large, chief executive of the Cleaning and Support Services Association (CSSA) supports the steps being taken by BICSc. “The CSSA promotes a professional cleaning industry, and robust qualification in key skills are at its heart.”

Training to win 
This training is carried out under licence by assessors employed by an Authorised Training Provider (ATP) or Authorised Training Organisation (ATO). These assessors receive an audit review by a BICSc verifier at a minimum every two years, and routinely every year. Failure to present for an audit within the two year period will lead to the individual assessor licence being revoked. The assessors provide individual refresher training and audit so that cleaning operatives can apply for a new card and three years membership when it becomes due. 

Doug Cooke, chief executive of Principle Cleaning Services, is firmly behind BICSc and encourages those FMs yet to be persuaded to see the light: “BICSc ensures best practice and safe practices of work. It can be the first step towards ensuring a well-trained workforce, providing the first stage to those wanting to have a career in the cleaning industry. That should be an aim for any cleaning company.”

BICSc verifiers will also check that its assessors are applying for the individual certificates that create the audit trail to demonstrate that the operatives are competent in the skills they have trained and been accredited to.

With new organisational processes, BICSc believes that it is at last ready to offer the robust accreditation the cleaning industry deserves.