While end-point assessments currently raise more questions than they answer, if well implemented, they could help build confidence in the apprenticeship system, says Terry Fennell
Last month the DfE approved the 135th apprenticeship standard for mainstream delivery and by the end of 2016, over 3,000 apprentices will have started on one of these new programmes.
Those 3,000 apprentices – and many more to follow – will be undertaking a standard that may or may not have a qualification mandated, yet all will have to complete an end-point assessment (EPA) designed to ‘test’ the apprentice’s knowledge, skills and behaviours against the original requirements of the job role.
As it stands, less than half of the 138 standards are currently able to declare which Apprenticeship Assessment Organisation (AAO) will provide the EPAs for their apprenticeship. This must surely be a concern for policy makers and the slowly emerging Institute for Apprenticeships (IFA) that will assume statutory responsibility for the quality and approval of stan dards from April 2017. For the moment, prospective AAOs must be approved by the Skills Funding Agency to appear on the Register of Apprenticeship Assessment Organisations (ROAAO) and only then can they offer EPA services on a specific standard.
One of key dilemmas facing aspiring AAOs is the classic return-on-investment issue
One of key dilemmas facing aspiring AAOs is the classic return-on-investment issue, as they cost the development requirements and try to calculate the potential income. Another issue surrounds the unregulated external quality assurance arrangements that may be imposed on AAOs. For example, the current requirements for trailblazers are to introduce a ‘quality assurance’ administration on an AAO; this could be a ‘governing board’ of employers or a professional body-led approach that (while it could work in certain instances) is likely to result in territorial and/or commercial tensions. Another option is to request that Ofqual oversee quality arrangements, but that would mean redefining the EPA as a qualification and is only open to regulated awarding organisations. The final option available to trailblazers is to request the yet-to-be-implemented IFA take on the quality-assuring role, but it is still unclear how that might function.
With so many questions surrounding the EPA in apprenticeships, it is easy to understand why many in the sector are raising doubts in relation to costs and the practical challenges they will bring. However, I believe that a well-implemented EPA will go a long way to ‘underpinning’ confidence in the apprenticeship system, what has for too long raised suspicion amongst government and employers. Rightly or wrongly, the 2012 Richard Review of Apprenticeships did influence politicians towards the notion of finishing ‘exams’ as a trusted method of assessment and reaching a grade.
If standards do bring parity with the assumed ‘gold standard’ education and HE counterparts, politicians will no longer be able to ‘doubt’ the challenge of completing the programme by qualification only. Furthermore, apprentices will have to prove over and above their qualification (if applicable) that they have mastered a trade, craft or occupational job requirement and this will have been adjudicated by an independent source.
Let’s not be too judgemental too early on EPAs
I must declare an interest for my own organisation, which has not only supported employers on the Level 2 Butchery Standard from development to approval, but has also successfully applied to the SFA to offer the EPAs for butchers. As with all Awarding Organisations (AO), our core business expertise is in assessment, qualification and people development and we function within a regulated market overseen by Ofqual. This means that when developing the EPAs, we have to ensure they are delivered with the usual ‘controlled’ practices that require consistency, reliability and the underpinning validity.
My call to the sector is this: let’s not be too judgemental too early on EPAs. Yes, they will cost more than qualifications but if awarding organisations and (potentially) other EPA bodies are to put rigour and validity into their end tests, then the associated costs for development and implementation will inevitably be higher than those of registering someone on an existing qualification.
In terms of the EPAs causing disruption to the workplace, by having to spend time off the job to sit an exam or take part in a practical assessment, then we should make no apology to this requirement. In fact, employers should actually welcome the prospect that a member of their workforce is looking to prove beyond doubt their competence.
Terry Fennell is operations director at specialist awarding organisation FDQ