The sector cheered when the IfA said it would allow qualifications in standards once again, but not all is as it seems, according to Anthony Elgey, who has been involved in several trailblazers in the mineral products industry

It seems the sector’s celebrations over this week’s Institute for Apprenticeships announcement, that qualifications would be permitted in apprenticeship standards, were premature. The new rule allows only for the inclusion of qualifications that test knowledge, which means the IfA is still not listening to what employers are asking for.

Swathes of employers in all kinds of trailblazers are saying they would like vocational qualifications mandated in standards, especially those which test on-the-job competence. Many sectors have to demonstrate competence to the Health and Safety Executive. In the extractives sector this is achieved by gaining a vocational qualification derived from national occupational standards.

But the real puzzle is why first the DfE, and now the IfA, are both so stubbornly opposed to vocational qualifications.

One reason, given by the IfA at a recent briefing, was that it “really doesn’t want them”, given that they duplicate end-point assessments. But could it not also be argued that EPA duplicates an existing regulated vocational qualification assessment process – and that this should be seen as a great opportunity instead of a threat to EPA?

I remain to be convinced that standards mandating vocational qualifications will be approved, even if those qualifications meet the IfA’s new rules

The fact of the matter is vocational qualifications have been approved by the government regulator as a robust, reliable way of assessing the skills, knowledge and competences that are required for particular roles.

The more likely explanation might be that the people at the IfA who are drafting the guidance do not fully understand vocational qualifications. Its own website guidance refers to NVQs in the context of unacceptable qualifications: “a qualification which accredits occupational competence, for example an NVQ (National Vocational Qualification). Summative assessment in these qualifications duplicates EPA and costs a relatively large amount of money to deliver, drawing resources away from training.”

NVQs do not even exist anymore. Over the last 10 years they have evolved into QCFs (2008) and more recently, a simplified system of RQFs (2015). If the people writing the guidance are so completely out of touch with the current vocational qualifications landscape, how can we trust that their decisions are based on evidence?

Another explanation is that the IfA is concerned that if it allows vocational qualifications to be mandated, it would make end-point assessment redundant, which would be highly embarrassing for everyone involved. However this would not be the case at all: vocational qualification assessment can actually complement EPA and the IfA should see this as an opportunity, not a threat.

Putting all this aside, I remain to be convinced that standards mandating vocational qualifications will be approved, even if those qualifications meet the IfA’s new rules. Over recent years it has been all too common for standards to be rejected on multiple occasions, even though they complied with one of the three acceptable rules for inclusion.

To give just one example, employers wanted the weighbridge operations apprenticeship standard to include a qualification that was developed to demonstrate competence. The trailblazer group satisfied the requirement of professional registration and was even given wording for the letter from the Institute. The apprenticeship was rejected, however, as the letter did not satisfy the panel.

The group was advised to use the “hard sift” requirement, meaning that job adverts would need to prove that any apprentice or applicant must have this vocational qualification or they would not get the job. The IfA did not accept the explanation, however, that a vocational qualification can only be achieved in the role, so employers are unable to advertise for an entry-level role using an advert that insists they must have a qualification that can only be gained on the job.

This is not a win, nor is it a case that stubborn blockers have been removed. As far as we’re concerned, the IfA has still not heard the voices of every employer.

Anthony Elgey is general manager of MP Futures