Government agency in quick search for ‘interim’ arrangements to avoid gap in apprenticeship quality assurance

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) has been forced into hastily finding “interim” arrangements for its apprenticeship external quality assurance service for April.

Open Awards has held the contract to monitor end-point assessment organisations on the institute’s behalf since August 2017, but this deal comes to an end in March. 

A procurement was launched at the end of January for a new organisation to take on the job, which would run until March 2021. 

However, tender documents, seen by FE Week, show that “service commencement” will not be until May 2019. 

FE Week asked the institute what this meant for the month of April, and a spokesperson confirmed that external quality assurance “will continue during April”. 

However, it has had to come up with “interim arrangements” for the month, which haven’t been finalised yet. 

This is likely to cause some concern, considering that the institute is the nominated EQA provider for 191, or 55 per cent, of 345 approved standards. 

Under its contract with Open Awards, the IfATE, like Ofqual, doesn’t charge end-point assessment organisations (EPAOs) for the quality assurance service. 

But this will change when its new contract comes into play.

Tender documents for the institute’s new contract state that “legislation allows the institute to charge EPAOs a fee per apprentice that undertakes an end-point assessment and it is these fees that will pay for the EQA service”. 

They add: “The institute’s budget is limited and we are seeking to work with a supplier who will deliver a high-quality service at a price that offers strong value for money.” 

The bidding organisation is asked to “confirm what price they would charge per end-point assessment”, and would receive a minimum payment of £20,000 a month for the duration of the contract. 

The winning bidder can therefore expect to earn at least half a million pounds over the two-year contract period. 

A spokesperson for the institute said EQA is to be delivered on a “cost-recovery basis and not for profit” and this has “been made clear to potential bidders”. 

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, has labelled charging for EQA as the “biggest mistake yet”.

The ESFA sets a funding band for each apprenticeship standard, which is usually the value given to providers to deliver the training. 

Up to 20 per cent of the total funding is available to fund the end-point assessment. The EQA cost is paid by the end-point assessment organisation and is factored into the EPA price. 

There are currently 18 approved external quality assurance bodies that monitor end-point assessment organisations, to ensure the process is “fair, consistent and robust”. 

FE Week revealed the “ridiculous variability” in approved external quality assurance charges last week, which were criticised by sector leaders for ranging from a free service to £179 per apprentice. 

Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, representing many of the 199 currently approved EPAOs, said: “These practices run the risk of bringing the entire reforms into disrepute.” 

The closing dates for bids to IfATE’s tender is February 26.