In this chapter I raise the question of what it means to award a qualification guaranteeing that an individual is able to practise an occupation. The ability to practise an occupation to a required standard is what is meant by proficiency in this chapter. Proficiency, as I shall use the term in this chapter, refers to the overall ability to practise an occupation, including knowledge, know-how of various kinds, attitudes, dispositions and virtues. Although in the modern occupational context it is not, of itself a situational attribute (compare the practice of traditional crafts e.g., Sturt, 1923/1976), it presupposes the ability to make situationally relevant judgements taking into account particularities of place, colleagues and clients and, by implication a degree of tacit ability (Gascoigne & Thornton, 2013; Hutchinson & Read, 2011). It thus encompasses a wide range of conceptions of competence ranging from the narrow English task-based conception to the expansive German concept of occupational competence (berufliche Handlungskompetenz) (Brockmann, Clarke, & Winch, 2009). The question is by no means as simple as it seems at first sight. In particular, ability to practise an occupation will need some explanation. I hope to be able to provide at least a provisional answer to the question of what it means to say that it is possible to guarantee an individual’s ability to practise an occupation. The answer sheds some light on our current practices. The issues that I raise have a particular relevance to the “Anglosphere” of the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and to a considerably lesser extent to those societies in which the attitude of Beruflichkeit is well embedded. Nevertheless, some of the points that I make apply to these as well. The role of this chapter in the volume overall is to provide an overview of the most important issues concerning the ways in which societies satisfy themselves that occupations are practised to the standard desired. Many of the chapters are concerned with the practise of different occupations, together with the challenges that they face. The issue of the nature of expertise at the meso of level of occupational practice is also tackled. This chapter by contrast takes a more general look at why societies recognise practitioners and to some extent how they do so.

The question raises two further issues: What do we mean by professional and competence? ‘Competence’, which, as already remarked, is a term which in English is closely related to proficiency, is a term which contains pitfalls for the translator. It can mean: skill performed to a certain level, as in England (Winch, 2011; Brockmann, Clarke, & Winch, 2011, esp. Chap. 10); the practice of a métier in which practice is informed by theory and reflection, as in France (Brockmann et al., 2008, p. 232), or it can mean an allround occupational capacity, as in Germany (Hanf, 2011). In whatever way the term is interpreted, it implies meeting a certain standard of professional performance. ‘Professional’ raises similar issues. It implies first, that the competence in question is related to an occupational context. In the different European national conceptions of occupation, this will have different implications, relating to how well-defined, how durable or how broad in terms of scope for agency the occupation is conceived (Greinert, 2007; Hanf, 2011). The term ‘professional’ is not just to be considered for the traditional professions such as the law or medicine, but for any reasonably well defined occupation.Footnote 1 The adjective ‘professional’ refers to the disposition to act conscientiously and efficiently in one’s work. For the purposes of this article, we will adopt the “expansive” conception of professional competence, meaning conscientious and efficient agency in a well-defined occupation but recognise that the term also has applications in less expansive conceptions. Such a definition joins attitudinal with epistemic characteristics. We are thus considering occupations in the broad and well-defined sense to be found in Germany with broadly based considerations of professional autonomy in the workplace with scope for both problem-solving and project management. However, although these characteristics are often not so strongly defined in other countries, a lot of the points made about occupations in this expansive sense will apply to them as well.

What is meant by a social guarantee? A guarantee is a promise made that something will occur or that a product or service will work as advertised. A social guarantee is one made by an individual or an organisation, not just to the purchaser or user but to the society as whole. This is particularly important for professional competence, since the practise of occupations (whether broadly or narrowly conceived), has consequences that affect the whole of society. However, a guarantee is not a promise that something will certainly happen (e.g., that the product sold will never break down within a certain period), but that the guarantor is confident that it will not happen given the trouble that he has taken to ensure that it won’t. False positives, that is, claims that something will happen which are not true, for example that the product will not fail, must be as far as possible eliminated. But they can never be completely eliminated. The guarantee must also be valid, meaning that it has to guarantee what it says that it will guarantee. This is a point which we will return to as it affects how we understand the assessment of professional competence.

Competence in a professional context implies action. But what does this mean? In a very “thin” conception of competence it implies a set of task-related behaviours, such as those expected of the dual fuel smart meter installer in England.Footnote 2 When however competence is considered more broadly, many other aspects of agency will come into play, including an increasing degree of task discretion, opportunity and ability to control one’s work process, including the cycle from planning to evaluation, problem solving and project management and last but not least the ability to apply theoretical considerations to occupational practice. Increasing task discretion and complexity in turn imply the more complex involvement of the character and attitudes of the practitioner. Given this, the processes of assessing competence in a broad sense will also need to be relatively complex. Given also that occupations are related to each other and sometimes occupational activities overlap, a certain degree of redundancy may have to be built into the occupational profile. A certain degree of occupational redundancy may also be due to the “future proofing” of the occupation, by giving the candidate abilities to keep up with potential technical, social and economic developments within and relevant to the occupation.

These considerations intersect with a number of debates about occupations and proficiency and I will just mention a few which are most significant. The first is that of providing an adequate conceptualisation of professional know-how. This consideration in turn depends on a better understanding of the nature of know-how and its relationship with propositional and acquaintance knowledge (Carr, 1979, 1981; Kotzee, 2016; Rumfitt, 2003; Ryle, 1949, 1979; Stanley & Williamson, 2001, 2017). The general approach adopted here can be called “non-intellectualist” (Winch, 2018) as it seeks to avoid reductivism; on the one hand of practical to propositional knowledge as advocated by Stanley and Williamson and on the other of propositional to practical knowledge (as can be seen in some interpretations of the work of Gilbert Ryle).

The second concerns the somewhat neglected but important topic of the need to provide an adequate conceptual framework for analysing and constructing professional curricula. Inadequate conceptualisations and categorisations of the range of possible attributes necessary for professional proficiency can hamstring attempts to construct appropriate curricula and can also compromise attempts to provide meaningful comparisons between curricula for cognate professions in different jurisdictions (Allais & Shalem, 2018; Arnold, Wilson, Bridge, & Lennon, 2020; Dębowski & Stęchły, 2015; Pilz & Li, 2020; Young & Muller, 2014). Table 2.1 was the result of an attempt to do this in relation to the construction industry, but the approach has a much wider application (Winch, 2015). Table 2.1 below illustrates application to the construction industry.

Table 2.1 A transparency tool for the comparison and construction of occupational qualifications exemplified by Low Energy Construction Occupations or Near Zero Energy Construction (NZEB)

The third, overlapping somewhat with the second, concerns the possibilities for making international comparisons between qualifications in different jurisdictions and the conceptual and practical problems that can arise as a result (Brockmann, Clarke, & Winch, 2010, 2011; European Commission, 2017; Raffe, 2011). The issue has become particularly important with the attempt within the European Union to provide transparency instruments based on a learning outcomes methodology across Europe in order to compare similar qualifications in different jurisdictions (Méhaut & Winch, 2009, 2012; Winch, 2021). These ongoing and largely unresolved debates have and will continue to have a huge impact on our understanding of professional proficiency. In the following section we will look in more detail at a question closely related to the second of these issues by considering the elements of professional agency.

Elements of Professional Agency

To get clearer about the various aspects of professional agency we need to look at some of the basic concepts related to knowing how to do something (to know how in English, können in German, savoir faire in French). Despite the somewhat impoverished conceptual structure and terminology that is used in the Anglophone context, this is not all that simple.


The best place to start is with the concept of skill. Although used in a very broad sense in the Anglophone context, it has a core use that is easy to agree on. This concerns the practise of manual techniques in order to achieve a certain end, such as sawing wood, forming a pot out of clay or constructing a wooden wheel. Neither is it very controversial to incorporate a mental element into the concept of skill. Mental computation is a good example and can often be found as an aspect of other skills such as those involved in carpentry. The term ‘skill’ can also be employed without too much strain in relation to more complex activities such as building a desk or driving a locomotive. But already at this point, we need to be aware, not only that more than one technique may be employed, but that there may be considerable elements of personal discretion incorporated into the activity, such as the ability to plan, to adjust, to evaluate, to make decisions for example. Already we are beginning to move away from the straightforward idea of skill as the ability to practise a technique (Sennett, 2008).

It is also important to be wary of identifying a skill with technique, even if it involves the practice of a technique. Practising a technique only in circumstances which are not professionally relevant is not counted as a skill for the purposes of assigning a skill to someone in a professional context. If agents cannot deal with exigencies of time management, difficult working environment, clients and colleagues or financial parameters, then they cannot operate professionally, however good their technique may be in ideal circumstances such as a simulated environment. Skill thus already implies character attributes such as persistence, diligence, consideration for well-being of oneself and others, as well as the practise of the technique in appropriate circumstances (Kerschensteiner, 1925/1968). An important lesson to be drawn is that even if one were to draw up a tabular map of the attributes needed for professional competence (see Table 2.1), making distinctions on paper does not mean that the attributes are, in reality, completely distinct from each other.

Transversal Abilities

The use of the term ‘skill’ becomes problematic when it is applied to aspects of agency that can be realised in different ways, in which the focus tends to be not so much on the specific skill but the ends to which it is employed and where judgement, decision and reflection become important to success (Ryle, 1979). To take an example, an electrician planning the wiring of a house may do this in different ways: formal or informal, systematic or non-systematic, structured or non-structured. The important point is not that s/he is able to exercise certain planning skills, but that s/he is able to successfully carry through an intention to wire the house successfully (Hasselberger, 2014). The successful autonomous electrician will in the normal course of events be expected to judge what is appropriate or what is not feasible, to take account of possible obstacles and unexpected problems and to be sufficiently flexible to adapt where necessary, bearing in mind the overall objective. Specific techniques may or may not be helpful. If necessary, we would expect a rational account of the process explaining choices, decisions, adjustments and so forth, even if these were all carried out informally in situ. This point becomes important when we consider assessment.

A somewhat different example concerns the social abilities needed for successful professional practice. These do not primarily concern the practice of social techniques to do with politeness, etiquette and recognition of social distinction, but rather the respect due to the well-being of colleagues, clients and others affected by one’s activities. In this sense, the term ‘social skills’ is not only misleading but potentially pernicious as it appears to imply that our social interactions, both in and out of professional contexts, are manipulative, treating individuals as means to an end rather than being worthy of respect in their own right.

In many occupations, the ability to communicate is vital to success. This ability cannot be reduced to the practise of communication skills designed to achieve a professional objective. These can be practised without the professional objective being achieved, because their practise does not necessarily take into account the needs and well-being of the client or colleagues being communicated with. A successful communicator, as opposed to someone who uses communication skills to elicit a desired response in an audience, is someone who has something to say which s/he wishes the audience to understand and, if necessary to act on, taking into account the needs and well-being of that audience (O’Neill, 2018). Social skills may play a role in the exercise of such an ability but they can never be a substitute for the ability to communicate. To think so is to misunderstand communication, whether in a professional or nonprofessional context.

If these abilities are not properly called ‘skills’ then what are they? In English there is no ready to hand term for them, which may be one reason why they are not given the attention they deserve in Anglophone professional learning contexts. In German they are known as Fähigkeiten and can be contrasted with Fertigkeiten (skills). To exercise a Fähigkeit, one needs to employ certain Fertigkeiten, but the Fähigkeit is by no means to be identified with these. The various Fähigkeiten specified in an occupational profile for a recognised profession or Beruf form the building blocks for: professional autonomy and decision-making, for problem solving abilities and for project management, both individually and in conjunction with colleagues (Hanf, 2011). One term that could be used is transversal abilities.Footnote 3 The key to professional action is not just the performance of discrete tasks but the carrying out of complexes of interrelated tasks in a flexible way with an end in mind. This contrast can best be explained with some examples: planting turnips contrasted with managing a year’s crops; laying a line of bricks contrasted with planning and building a two-storey structure; marking homework contrasted with planning a year’s assessment schedule. We can call these extended activities ‘project management’, about which more below.

Extended Autonomous Action

One important feature of transversal abilities is that they are often employed in solving problems or finding suitable ways of overcoming actual and potential obstacles to the carrying out of tasks or projects. Another of their important characteristic features is that they are usually employed together, both aggregatively (in overlapping sequences) and recursively (the conclusion of one cycle of activity initiating the next).

The ability to solve problems, either individually or collectively, is a necessary feature of autonomous professional action. In contrast to the practise of technique, or way of doing something, problem-solving typically involves finding an appropriate or effective way of doing something. It thus cannot be a skill, although certain problem solving skills may or may not be deployed in problem-solving activities. Problem-solving typically involves reflection, supposition, hypothesis formation and testing and discussion of alternatives, none of which reduce readily to skills, but involve more complex abilities such as: reviewing, imagining, communicating, coordinating, planning and evaluating.Footnote 4 Problem-solving is a pervasive aspect of any complex professional activity involving autonomous action and pervades project management as well.

Project management involves the autonomous carrying out of extended sequences of tasks, usually with a defined outcome, whether it be a physical construction, an intellectual one or a service of some kind. It is typically cyclical, involving a movement from planning, though execution to evaluation, usually preparing the ground for the next cycle. As noted, since problems invariably occur along the route to successful project completion, problem-solving tends to be an integral feature of project management. Although a project management cycle can be analysed into distinct phases, it is probably an error to think that these phases are completely distinct from each other, rather that they have considerable interconnections and are intermingled in various ways. Thus the cycle of building a two storey structure might involve: planning, control and evaluation. It would also involve at most, if not all, stages a considerable degree of communication and coordination.Footnote 5 We might even be prepared to withhold the judgement that planning had taken place until the execution of the project was largely successfully completed, since the latter would constitute a significant part of the evidence that planning had in fact taken place (see Hasselberger, 2014). It is noteworthy that vocational education and training (VET) systems, like those of Poland, France or Germany, which emphasise autonomous workplace action, place great emphasis, not only on the development of transversal abilities, but also on the integration of these into problem-solving and project management.

Knowledge: Systematic and Non-systematic

So far, the discussion has emphasised agency and ability. But in professional contexts (or indeed in any others) such attributes are rarely exercised without the employment of knowledge. Intentional action tends to be informed by beliefs about ends and means and tends to be successful to the extent that these beliefs about ends and means are both true and have some underlying explanatory basis. In other words, action is informed by beliefs and is successful to the extent that those beliefs are in fact items of knowledge, usually situated in a broader knowledge background informing agents’ decision-making and action. An important feature of occupational knowledge is that it is often systematically organised and based on systematic or scientific enquiry (Hordern, 2017). Depending on one’s level of autonomy, the degree of engagement with that systematic knowledge will vary. At the simplest level the knowledge required simply involves the application of protocols (derived by other specialists) from a combination of a goal and the use of relevant parts of the underpinning theory. Technical workers typically have sufficient command of theoretical knowledge to be able to solve the kinds of problems typical of their work and to engage in project cycles. Technologists and researchers on the other hand typically have a more active engagement with theory, including making significant contributions to it (Winch, 2018).

Possessing occupationally relevant systematic knowledge (Wissen in German) provides a necessary resource, both for solving problems and managing projects. One’s beliefs about how a problem should be solved are unlikely to be successful unless they are also knowledge and one is unlikely to access that knowledge unless one has a grasp of the relevant field and can select from it propositions that are relevant to one’s circumstances. Much the same considerations apply to project management; for example, the ability to plan and to deal with problems and contingencies will require access to the relevant systematic as well as local knowledge. It is reasonable to conclude then that the possession of knowledge is a prerequisite of autonomous professional agency in which problem solving and project management are essential components. We should not thus think of knowledge as an entirely discrete component of a professional’s agency, but as an integral part of his or her professional proficiency considered as a whole (of which more below).

Attitude: Personal and Social

Professional work is unlikely to be carried out successfully without a commitment to do so with commitment and conscientiousness (Carr, 1999). These could be seen as aspects of the other aspects of agency already mentioned. Thus, skills need to be exercised with care, planning is unlikely to be successful unless it is focused and flexible, taking into account the needs of colleagues and clients, and project management will not succeed if the commitment to achieve the end within constraints imposed within and beyond the occupation are not respected. These considerations suggest that having an appropriate attitude is indispensable to successful professional agency and is only to be separated for analytical purposes from other aspects of ability and knowledge.

Occupational Capacity

In those occupations (including the established professions) whose practitioners act autonomously, manage projects (with the cooperation of colleagues) on the basis of systematic knowledge relevant to the practice of the occupation, it is possible to speak of an overarching aim of any programme of professional formation as the development of occupational capacity or what is called in Germany berufliche Handlungskompetenz.Footnote 6 It presupposes the integration of all the attributes mentioned above and has five dimensions: competence in dealing with work-related objects, competence in dealing with oneself, competence in dealing with others, competence in procedures and competence in learning (Brockmann et al., 2011, p. 177; Hanf, 2011, p. 57). It can also be taken to include knowledge of how one’s chosen occupation is developing and the impact of occupational practice, both on other occupations and on the wider society (see also Kerschensteiner, 1925/1968, for a defence of this approach) and is increasingly taken to include a reflective and self-reflective element.

Although in its full development occupational capacity belongs to Germanic conceptions of vocational education, the concept has a wider relevance. First, because elements of occupational capacity can be found in the occupational conceptions of other countries, including those with somewhat narrower conceptions of occupations and second, because the concept points to ways in which more expansive ideas of what an occupation is can be developed. Table 2.1, which shows the relationships between the occupational concepts outlined above, can be used to compare qualifications and also as a template for curriculum design, where choices about whether to incorporate certain attributes into an occupational profile can be made explicit with possibly the need to include or omit a certain category requiring justification. Thus, one could by populating all or nearly all of the cells in the table arrive at a rich concept of occupational proficiency very similar to the German berufliche Handlungskompetenz or one could, but restricting population to a few cells (e.g., skill, non-systematic knowledge) arrive at a concept of competence nearer to that of the former English National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) (see Jessup, 1991).

Assessing Professional Agency

A qualification is a form of social guarantee that the holder can indeed carry out a range of occupational activities to at least a minimum standard. This definition immediately poses the question of how such a guarantee can be secured. The short answer is that assessment of the candidate must be the means. But this claim, although correct, itself raises a number of difficult questions. First, a guarantee, as we saw, cannot provide certainty. But how is it possible to provide a guarantee and, at the same time, allow for the possibility of mistakes in awarding qualifications? Here we need to ask what kind of mistake is more injurious to the concept of the qualification as a guarantee: denying a qualification to someone who deserves to gain it (false negative) or awarding a qualification to someone who does not deserve to gain it (false positive)?Footnote 7

The social importance of many occupations, together with their potential and actual impact on the safety and well-being of the public, suggests that the balance of risk should lie with aspiring candidates to the occupation rather than to the public and those dependent on or involved with the occupation. In other words, the potential injustice inflicted on a candidate by a false negative is far outweighed by the potential harm to others that might result from a false positive. The presumption must then be on the rigour of the assessment procedure to eliminate as far as possible, false positives in the award of qualifications.

If this is accepted as a starting point, then we need to ask how assessment can be sufficiently thorough and comprehensive to meet such a requirement. To answer this question is not so easy as might be supposed. The problems tend to multiply the more complex the occupation actually is. As a start, we might suggest two diametrically opposed approaches to the problem. In the first case, the candidate is assessed on the basis of the underpinning knowledge necessary to practise the occupation and on what judgements or actions would be taken in certain circumstances (Prais, 1991). In the second case, the candidate is assessed on the basis of actual practice in the workplace (Jessup, 1991).

The first approach is vulnerable to the obvious objection that such an assessment could not provide any direct evidence about the candidates’ actual ability to perform occupational tasks. We might learn something about their judgements in hypothetical or post hoc scenarios, but few would claim that this could provide convincing evidence of ability to perform satisfactorily in the occupation. The second approach looks, at first sight, more promising and indeed formed the basis of the English NVQs which were introduced in 1986. However, the problems with such an approach, although not so obvious as with the first, are serious and because not obvious, also insidious. The approach works best for the assessment of tasks or bundles of tasks that require little or no autonomy and are confined to a narrow range of situations with little or no variation. However, such are not the attributes of most occupations and thus such an approach will not be appropriate for those. Why not?

There are a number of reasons. Let us suppose that an occupation requires the practitioner to act sometimes independently and sometimes as part of an independent team in a wide variety of contexts. Let us further suppose that these contexts are themselves often complex, frequently contain new elements and are dynamic. We have to ask ourselves whether the observation of a limited number of cases of genuine occupational activity could provide sufficient evidence to underpin a guarantee of competence. This is by no means to claim that such evidence is irrelevant. Indeed, it is likely to be of the greatest importance. The problem, though, is that it is unlikely to be sufficient. We need evidence that candidates can perform competently in an indefinite range of situations which it is not practical to observe, while at the same time showing consistency in performance. We also need to be satisfied as to the soundness of their judgements, that is, the quality of their decision-making when embarking on a course of action (Winch, 2016).

A further consideration is that “real-life” or operational conditions are likely to be such that the possibility of poor judgement or of mistakes has to be minimised if serious consequences are not to occur. Therefore, assessing a candidate’s performance in realistic conditions is essential in forming an accurate judgement of competence. But this cannot be done until the assessors are satisfied that the candidate can perform well in operational conditions. This presents an apparent paradox that needs to be resolved: We cannot assess a candidate’s performance in operational conditions unless we are satisfied that s/he can function in operational conditions. We cannot therefore rely solely on performance in operational conditions except when making a final assessment of a candidate’s capability. The assessment of a candidate’s progress towards fully operational competence must, therefore, rely in part on assessment in a variety of environments short of the fully operational. So, the first conclusion to be drawn is that any robust assessment of professional competence will need to take into account a variety of situations, probably related to the developing expertise of the candidate, ranging from benign simulated conditions, through controlled, to fully operational conditions.

Fake and Frozen Know-How

Let’s look more closely at the apparently contradictory requirements of stability and adaptability of performance (e.g., Ryle, 1976; Hornsby, 2011). We want to conclude inductively from observation of a particular performance that chance or luck were not responsible for success. We need to be assured that the candidate will be able to perform in much the same way in similar circumstances. One way in which we can do this is to assume that we are assessing not just behaviour, but rational action based on sound judgement. And if this is the case, we cannot rest satisfied with observation of behaviour alone. We need to ensure that the judgement that underpins the behaviour and which, together with the appropriate behaviour, makes the whole performance a rational action, is a sound one. We need to be sure of this even (or perhaps especially) in circumstances in which the opportunities for judgement are constrained, especially by time needed to come to a decision and to act. The agent’s having good reasons for acting suggests that performance will be consistent and not produced by chance.

At the same time, a particular action, for example, the use of a particular piece of equipment, is a token of a type, the type being the use of that particular equipment. But the tokens of an action type will not only differ quantitatively (occurring at different times and places), but also qualitatively. The use of a carpentry tool will depend on a variety of factors that include the characteristics of the material, time needed and spatial constraints for example. In each case, the action required will need to be different in particular ways from others of the same type. Furthermore, judgements associated with the different token instances may also need to differ from each other, when for example, the same tool used on a previous occasion is judged to be necessary for a different situation. As we cannot, for practical reasons, examine all these different tokens we need to find alternative ways of judging the quality of an action. There are two ways in which this can be done. First, by assessing the judgement supporting the action observed we can learn something about the quality of the candidate’s judgements. This is a post hoc procedure that should be able to tell us that the performance was genuine. It also tells us that the candidate is capable of forming appropriate judgements in professional situations and, if these are operational situations, that s/he can do so in operational conditions. Such procedures should lessen the risk that the candidate possesses fake know-how.

But this does not address the problem that, in complex professional environments, we need the assurance that the candidate can perform competently in circumstances which we have neither the time nor resources to observe directly and which the candidate may even be unlikely to encounter in the course of a normal professional life, but which may however demand a high level of response on the part of the professional. Some of these will call for actions of different types, some others will call for token variations in a type.Footnote 8

In the latter kind of case, we are looking for the ability to adapt, and to take account of the circumstances in which action is required where the action is one that is perhaps familiar. The procedure mentioned above in relation to fake know-how can serve as a partial assurance on this point, namely that the candidate has made an appropriate judgement in relation to the action taken. In the other kind of case, where an action of a different type may be required, for example, choice of procedure or tool A rather than B, a different approach will need to be adopted. Here it will often become necessary to assess indirectly the quality of the action (and supporting judgement). A complication here is that competence will not merely depend on gauging the circumstances in which action takes place, but also how the systematic knowledge supporting the occupation may be brought to bear on the action, since a significantly new situation may require a different theoretical rationale for action. The situation is thus potentially complex.

Assessing How Theory Is Applied in Practice

If a professional does not have a good grasp of the theory or theories that support his practice, then it is of little use to enquire how well he is able to put theory into practice. On the other hand, his knowledge of the theory supporting practice will not of itself be sufficient to warrant the judgment that he can use theory in practical professional situations. Is it then sufficient to assess practical judgement in professional situations in order to conclude that the candidate knows how to apply theory to practice? After all, if a practical action is taken which is the optimal one from a range of possibilities and in post hoc dialogue the candidate is able to explain and justify the action using both proximal (situation-related) and distal (related both to long-term aims and to theoretical propositions) considerations, then do we not have sufficient warrant to conclude that the candidate has a good enough grasp of the theory supporting professional practice in order to use it effectively?

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case. Theories that support professional practices come in many different kinds but in most if not all cases they are systematically organised and are often structured hierarchically. They often work on fundamental principles, employ rules for inferring other propositions and rely on procedures for solving problems, producing new knowledge and discarding discredited beliefs (Lakatos, 1970). They are critically important in professional practice, not just in supporting decision-making in nonabnormal circumstances where problems need to be solved, but particularly in providing resources for dealing with unexpected situations where no guide from experience is sufficient to make an appropriate decision.

This reflection suggests that it is not sufficient to assess a candidate’s grasp of the theory supporting his profession from the evidence that he is able to apply it in a range of practical situations that can be assessed, together with some questioning of the candidate of the reasons behind decisions, although as we have already seen, this latter step is important in assessing the reasoning behind action. Should, then, the supporting theory be assessed directly as an academic topic separately from the assessment of professional practice? I don’t believe that there is one simple answer to this question. The reason is that different forms of professional activity require different levels of engagement with supporting theory. Someone carrying out fundamental research will clearly need to have mastered, at least to graduate level, the discipline which supports underlying theory and will have a more specialised and deep knowledge of some branch of the discipline. On the other hand, a semi-skilled worker who is only expected to follow protocols generated by the theory in limited professional situations, may need little or no understanding of the supporting theory, let alone the underlying discipline from which it is derived (Winch, 2016).

In between these two extreme cases we have to consider the role that supporting theory plays in the work of skilled workers (Facharbeiter), technologists and the traditional professions. The first of these are technicians in the sense that some sociologists use the term, that is workers who apply theoretical considerations routinely to their practice. This is normally all that skilled workers do (although generalisations here can be dangerous). The technologist, usually with a graduate or postgraduate qualification, may herself contribute to the theory supporting her practice, at least in those aspects that concern the practical effects of theoretical considerations. Within the traditional professions, the workers are, by and large technologists rather than technicians, sometimes, but not necessarily having the capacity to contribute to the theory supporting their professional practice.Footnote 9

What is the minimum required of technicians? They must be able to give reasons for their professional decisions, to solve problems making use of the supporting theory where appropriate and to be able to draw on theoretical resources when confronted with new and complex situations. This third point is particularly important. The broader the scope of the occupation and the greater the autonomy of the practitioner, the more likely it is that such situations will arise. It follows, therefore, that the scope and depth of supporting theory that they will need to master will be greater, as together with experience, supporting theory is the main resource that they will have to call on in coping with such situations. Therefore, the scope of operations and the autonomy afforded to the professional will largely determine the need for supporting theory that the professional will require. In some cases, this can be ascertained through examination of how they would be able to cope with such novel and possibly unexpected situations, without the need for formal examination of the supporting theory. In other cases, this may not be enough, if for example a solution to a problem requires an intimate acquaintance with the relevant supporting theory. There is no a priori answer and the decision about assessment must be made by the representatives of the profession and those whose responsibility it is to administer and/or regulate it.

How then does one assess the ability of a professional to make use of supporting theory and to cope with a range of possible professional circumstances without a direct examination of theoretical mastery? Given that direct assessment is not possible, the inference to professional competence will have to be made via hypothetical situations. Only in this way can an adequate sample of professional circumstances be made. There are a number of ways in which this can be done. These range from “paper and pencil” tests on responses to such situations, through the exploration of problem-solving scenarios (perhaps suitable where teamwork is essentially involved), through problem solving in a simulated professional situation or some combination of all these. One important feature of such practices is not only that grasp of supporting theory may be assessed, but such activities as problem solving through the use of scenarios allows scope for transversal abilities and social competences to be assessed.

To summarise the assessment situation when we are considering whether to certify professional competence, we need to be able to:

  1. 1.

    Assess competence to perform to a certain level in realistic operational conditions.

  2. 2.

    To ascertain that this performance is genuinely reason-guided and not fake know-how.

  3. 3.

    To ascertain that there is sufficient flexibility in the carrying out of professional work in realistic operational conditions. That is, know-how is not frozen.

  4. 4.

    To assess reasoning and decision-making competence in a range of hypothetical circumstances.

In the cases of (1) and (3) observation of work in operational conditions will be required. Condition (3) suggests that one observation in operational conditions may not be enough. In the case of (2), this should normally occur immediately post hoc in the circumstances of (1) condition (4) will require assessment of likely reasoning, decision-making and performance in a range of hypothetical circumstances, suggesting examinations and/or practical scenario exercises. In some cases, this may need to be supplemented by examination in the supporting theory itself rather than just in its applications.

Constructing and Maintaining Professional Qualifications

Even in those societies in which the state does not construct qualifications there is, for reasons explained in this article, a need to regulate them. Even in England, a country long wedded to the operation of market forces in the area of professional education, regulation of qualifications, albeit at “arm’s length,” is undertaken by a state body. However, the mere fact of such regulation leaves open the question as to how prescriptive it should be. On the argument presented above, such regulation should ensure, not just that qualifications fulfil some minimal requirements relating to their integrity and relevance, but that they are capable of providing a guarantee of professional competence or proficiency. But what is professional competence? On the arguments presented here it is more than ability to perform the operations currently required by occupational standards to a safe and efficient standard. The guarantee should encompass not only the full range of routine occupational performance but take account of future ones. It should aim to ensure the appropriate attitudes in practitioners and that they have sufficient independence to solve problems and manage projects in conjunction with fellow workers. Failure to provide such a guarantee devolves those responsibilities onto a management tier for whom it becomes necessary to provide such a guarantee.

Whichever way one looks at the matter it is indispensable that such attributes are taken account of at some level of the occupation. There are good reasons for thinking that they be devolved to the lowest level of managerial responsibility that is possible, but if not then at some higher managerial level. The schema presented in Table 2.1 is intended to provide a framework for making curricular decisions that would allow qualifications to meet the needs of a guarantee. The schema is indicative but could be used by a regulatory authority as a checklist for professional qualification design. Certain sections might remain unpopulated, but then it would be reasonable for the authority to request a reason why, for instance, systematic knowledge was not required for a particular occupational category, for example if it was accounted for at another level of the managerial hierarchy or if the occupation was conceived in such a narrow way that it was superfluous to ask for the possession of systematic knowledge. One way of making the regulation of qualifications more rigorous and more of a guarantee of professional competence is to adopt a schema like or similar to that outlined in Table 2.1 and to use it as a template for the assessment of the probity and relevance of qualifications. That would both reduce path dependency and lead to a discussion of alternative ways of thinking about qualifications and the occupations that they cover.

The arguments also suggest that assessment (awarding the guarantee to an individual practitioner) has to be multidimensional in order to be a valid statement of occupational competence. Neither observed competent practice nor demonstrable supporting knowledge can be enough. Inference to competence in a wide range of possible occupational situations, which include the effective deployment of supporting knowledge where necessary is required, along with evidence about the effective use of professional judgement, including in constrained situations.