Funding isn’t the only big topic for debate in the apprenticeship reforms.
MPs on two Commons select committees have recently focused on the reform implications for the quality of the programme and at one of the evidence sessions, senior DfE officials were challenged by the National Audit Office on their presiding over a ‘blizzard’ of new apprenticeship standards.
As the NAO implied, the whole standards and end point assessment (EPA) process is in danger of spiralling out of control and the new Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education has a major task ahead in pulling in the reins.
There is no question that there are too many standards out there, either already approved or in the pipeline, including many which are too specialised.
My AoC colleague David Hughes likes to mention one for automatic doors as his favourite example while rumour has it that one is being proposed for ejector seats (Oddjob need not apply!).
Significant rationalisation is required and it can be achieved through the adoption of a ‘core and options’ approach.
Having appropriate standards and robust EPAs are vital to the success of the apprenticeship programme and the development of skills in the UK.
However feedback from AELP members suggests that while there are some excellent ones, this isn’t true for every standard developed and the damage that could be done to apprenticeships is far worse than the concerns around funding changes which we have had over the past weeks.
The damage that could be done to apprenticeships is far worse than the concerns around funding changes which we have had over the past weeks.
Standards need to provide a balance between an employer’s specific occupational need and the individual’s skills development as well as career opportunity and skills portability. EPAs need to be valid, reliable and manageable to meet basic assessment quality requirements.
AELP is not opposed to the concepts of either, but if implementation is mishandled, it will compromise the overall integrity of apprenticeships as a brand.
Some of our concerns relate to the process being followed.
Any academic qualification developed requires sample assessment materials and detailed curriculum and assessment methodology before being approved by the regulator, let alone delivered.
There would also be an outcry if there was an expectation of delivery starting without a reasonable period of preparation for those delivering.
On the face of it, these basic principles seem to be ignored for the development of apprenticeship standards.
Even worse, standards are being approved and delivered without an approved EPA organisation in place.
In the list of questions which AELP submitted to the MPs, described by the shadow Institute chief executive as a ‘fair set’, we asked what can be done to increase the numbers of organisations accredited to deliver EPAs.
We also wanted to know what happens to standards for which no EPA organisations can be found, or for which effective EPA monopoly or cartel positions may come into play.
The likely cost of end testing is a major worry, not least because some of the employers designing them don’t seem to realise that their digital accounts under the new system will bear the cost.
And the greater the cost means less funding available for new apprentice starts.
Worse still, providers have to cost in retakes into the same limited funding. Soon all an apprenticeship will be is a job and an assessment.
Take for an example a STEM sector where typically the cost to the provider of on-going assessment of the apprentice has been around £200.
There is a proposal for 5 to 6 days of end testing with the EPA organisation charging nearly £600 to cover elements such as the e-log book and functional skills testing even though the provider still does the bulk of the work including the observation.
Another organisation proposes to charge nearly £3,000 for the same standard’s EPA with the apprentices taken off-site. Where is the value for money compared to the original £200? Is it any wonder therefore that many independent training providers are looking into becoming EPA organisations themselves?
Time is short however and this is why the Institute needs to get a real grip on this whole issue as soon as possible.
This grip includes for every sector properly funded frameworks left in place until high quality standards, EPAs and EPA organisations are fully in place.
Yes, we want the right balance of quantity and quality but unchecked costs for standards and assessment could result in the government falling well short of its 3 million target.