Government reforms to apprenticeships go further than simply how the programme is funded and looked to include the introduction of a new grading system. Stewart Segal explains his concerns about these grading changes.

We raised a number of concerns about grading from the first recommendations following the 2012 report of Doug Richard.

While we welcome the fact the government has listened to concerns from employers, we along with providers believe the flexibility offered may not provide a full solution to the issue. There is a danger that allowing different approaches to grading will create some confusion.

Many of the published assessment strategies have very little detail of how the grading will be implemented. Many employers accept that the competence elements of the programme should not be graded. This will mean that the grading will be based on the knowledge elements of the standard, which cannot be right.

We recommended that the established skills competition tests could be used to promote mastery as these are standardised tests. Grading could be introduced once the new standards had been established for a reasonable period.

In the guidelines for trailblazers recently issued by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the government amended the guidance on grading within the new apprenticeship standards.

The initial guidance set out a requirement to grade apprenticeships using a fail, pass, merit and distinction structure.

The main reason given for introducing grading was to inspire apprentices to higher levels of skills and to recognise achievements. Although these are laudable aims, we do not believe that the current implementation of grades will deliver
these objectives.

Our view was that imposing this requirement goes against the principle of employer choice. We know many employers are not comfortable with the imposition of grades within the new apprenticeship standards, but have had to accept that this remains a government requirement. However the guidelines have been made more flexible.

The changes recently announced are acceptance that the structure can be fail, pass and distinction (rather than the four-level structure); not all elements need to be graded — some employers will not grade competence-based elements; and grading can be based on the end test only or cover formative assessments as well. The other change is that some exceptions have been made where no overall grade will be awarded and only some elements of the standards will be graded.

Although these changes are a response to concerns set out by us and also employers, they do not go far enough and we are still concerned by the implementation of grading. Our concerns were set out clearly in our response to the original proposals and they included grading will be very complex to introduce at the same time as introducing the new standards; having different grading structures (three or four levels of grades) in different standards will be very confusing; and, the details of how grading will be implemented in the new assessment strategies lack any detail.

We had further concerns that there is no detail of how there will be any standardisation or how apprentices will appeal any decisions; and that many standards will only grade knowledge-based elements which means that the competence-based elements will not be central to the grading of the standards.

Our recommendations therefore have been that employers should be given the option of whether to introduce grading. Many employers would choose the option of introducing the new standards and introduce grading once the standards have been established.

We are also concerned that grading will put the emphasis on the knowledge elements. Many employers have said that competence elements of the standard can only be judged pass or fail. Either an apprentice is competent or not.

This will also make it difficult to ensure that the grading will be standardised across all types of working environments.

The choice for employers should also include the option of using the nationally-recognised skills tests. There are well-established skills tests in many sectors used by skills competitions. These tests are standardised and can be delivered in any working environment. These could be optional for employers and apprentices so that the apprenticeship standards are based on pass and fail and then there are options to take the skills tests to prove mastery.