It might not be financially viable for awarding bodies to run end-point assessment exams, after it emerged that they will be forced to base their costs on deals negotiated with employers without their say-so.
New rules coming into force in May will set the cost of final apprenticeship exams at a fifth of the overall training costs agreed between an employer and a training provider – moving away from previous guidelines which set the charge at no more than 20 per cent of the funding-band maximum for that standard.
Assessors fear that this means they will lose money if employers drive hard bargains on deals with providers.
A draft copy of the handbook for apprentice assessment organisations, seen by FE Week, makes it clear that the change is designed to drive down overall costs.
It says: “The published rules confirm that the 20 per cent is of the total agreed price, not 20 per cent of the funding-band maximum.
“We agreed this because if the agreed price is less than the funding-band maximum, it ensures that the assessment costs are proportionately lower as well.”
Awarding organisations can only provide their services for a fair price
Stephen Wright, the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, issued a stark warning about the impact of the new rule.
“Like every other organisation, awarding organisations can only provide their services for a fair price,” he said.
“If the percentage of the price between the trainer and the employer is too low to deliver a valid assessment, then awarding organisations will simply not offer end-point assessments, which will undermine the whole system.”
Graham Hasting-Evans, the managing director of NOCN, a major awarding body, said that awarding organisations need control of the exam charges, to make sure they cover their costs and are able to make some profit.
He stressed that apprenticeship exam costs “are driven by the employer group’s specification for testing as set out in the assessment plan, and have nothing at all to do with the training costs”.
Details of what should be included in an apprentice’s final exam are set out by the employer groups developing a standard, and are outlined in the assessment plan.
Exam costs… have nothing to do with the training costs
Some of these can be highly detailed, and therefore have high costs attached to them. For example, the gas network team leader assessment plan estimates the final exam to cost £3,808.
But the standard has a funding-band maximum of £9,000 and the agreed price may be lower than that.
As the assessment costs are not related to the cost of training, the cost of delivering these exams to the specification set out in the assessment plan is unlikely to change regardless of the negotiated price for the apprenticeship.
Mr Hasting-Evans said that one way the government could reduce the cost of apprenticeship exams was to “review all the specifications with a view to improving efficiency and reducing costs”.
FE Week understands that a number of assessment organisations are reporting difficulties in recruiting assessors at payment rates that would allow them to break even.
The government has already started struggling to persuade organisations to sign up to deliver apprenticeship final exams.
By the end of January just over half – 81 out of 159 – standards approved for delivery had at least one assessment organisation in place.
But the proportion of learners on standards without an approved assessment organisation has been dropping rapidly, from 42 per cent in July to 18 per cent in October.
The Department for Education declined to comment either on the rule change or on the concerns raised by Mr Hasting-Evans and Mr Wright.