To avoid a conflict of interest, it would seem logical for Ofqual to take over external quality assurance for the Institute for Apprenticeships, but this would put off many organisations wanting to offer end-point assessment, says Simon Martin

Apprenticeship standards are intended to drive forward the workforce skills that UK employers have identified for competitiveness in the world economy. Yet many standards do not include any technical or vocational qualifications to benchmark the skills, knowledge and behaviours to be acquired by the apprentice, and even where they do, successfully passing the standard relies on passing the end-point assessment.

This means the robustness of EPA, and the quality assurance needed to underwrite that robustness, is a fundamental requirement for instilling confidence in the reliability of the new standards. But this remains highly questionable, given the fragmented approach that is emerging towards external quality assurance of EPA.

At the Annual Apprenticeships Conference in March, Peter Lauener, Shadow Chief Executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships, openly reiterated in a plenary session that the Institute’s primary function was to drive apprenticeship quality through its role as the regulator of standards and Assessment Plans. He added that one of the three key features of the new apprenticeship system was external quality assurance of EPAs; indeed, that IfA itself would ‘establish an approach to Institute-led external quality assurance’.

It is far from clear how this is materialising

It is far from clear, however, how this is materialising in a market where the employer groups themselves are choosing one of five different EQA organisation types, and moreover where one of these is the Institute itself, alongside the Quality Assurance Agency, Ofqual, professional bodies, and employer-led approaches.

Furthermore, in a workshop at the conference, Mike Keoghan, Deputy Chief Executive of the IfA, reported that a key area of concern arising from the sector consultation on the IfA was its role in ‘ensuring reliability and consistency of assessments with EQA organisations and the Institute’s role in quality assurance’.

There is, therefore, a core issue that needs to be resolved rapidly if the new apprenticeships are to be accepted as the professional and industrial Gold Standard that is hoped for.

At the conference Mr Keoghan described the Institute as the ‘back stop on quality’. This implies, and it would be reasonable to assume, that the Institute will therefore be the ultimate adjudicator across the mixed approach to EQA (there are already nearly 25 different EQA organisations). Yet the Institute itself is already being chosen by the standards development groups as the most popular EQA route, despite it supposedly being a ‘last resort’ option only. It is even more popular than the official qualifications regulator Ofqual.

There is manifestly a potential conflict of interest here

There is manifestly a potential conflict of interest here. To remedy this, Peter Lauener was clear at conference that the Institute will not employ staff to undertake EQA, but that this will be ‘tendered out’. In plenary and in workshops it was hinted at several times by senior representatives of both organisations that the Institute and Ofqual will be ‘talking closely’. This, however, is a problem.

If Ofqual takes a bigger space in the EQA arena – for example, by tendering for IfA/s EQA provision – any organisation looking to offer EPA where Ofqual is nominated as the standard’s EQA choice, has to become Ofqual-registered first.

This is a lengthy and daunting process for any organisation (such as an Awarding Body, for example) that is not already Ofqual-registered, and in reality has to be completed before even contemplating an application to the Register of Apprentice Assessment Organisations, which is in itself a considerable task.

Therefore, unless Ofqual changes its current rules, any move by the Institute for greater Ofqual involvement in EQA is likely to be off-putting for many organisations wanting to offer EPA.

Moreover, it will further delay the process, thus amplifying the travesty of current apprentices already following standards that do not have an identified EPA organisation in place – worryingly, already over half of all ‘live’ standards.