Ofqual sparks immediate backlash over plans to force awarding organisations to conduct no-notice audits

Awarding organisations could soon have to conduct surprise audits to colleges and training providers as Ofqual seeks to tighten controls on the controversial direct claims status practice.

The qualifications watchdog has today launched a consultation on changing the way awarding bodies manage and oversee centre assessments.

Ofqual has identified a risk with so many assessments being approved by providers with ‘direct claim status’ and no moderation taking place by the awarding organisation.

Awarding organisations using a verification process after the certification is now something Ofqual wants to clampdown on by being clearer that moderation should take place before certification.

The most controversial proposal appears to be for awarding organisations to conduct a “minimum” of two monitoring visits and an “additional unannounced visit per centre every year”.

Ailin O’Cathain, head of policy at the Federation of Awarding Bodies, is not happy about the prospect of no-notice visits, which she views as “deeply impractical”.

“It is a disproportionate response to how awarding organisations will choose to manage centres,” she said.

“Monitoring visits are already based on risk assessments and where awarding organisations believe a rapid response is required they will already take appropriate action.”

She added that the unannounced visits have the potential to cause “significant disruption to the working of centres and raise a wide range of practical implementation issues”. 

The chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, Mark Dawe, welcomed the “additional scrutiny because we believe accurate and consistent results are important”.

However, he said, providers’ “main concern will be to maintain a quick turnaround between assessment and certification”.

Centre assessments are where AOs devolve some responsibility for assessment to schools, colleges and training centres.

This is often known as direct claims status, where AOs do not moderate prior to certifications being awarded.

In February 2018, Ofqual wrote to awarding bodies to say it would begin auditing the organisations’ control over individual providers.

This was because of concerns the control AOs exerted over providers had lessened and the lack of moderation for direct claim status centres was leading to inconsistencies in attainment.

In the letter, Ofqual executive director for vocational and technical qualifications Phil Beach warned: “A failure to comply with the conditions of recognition can call into question the integrity of assessments, undermine the maintenance of standards and damage public confidence in the qualifications Ofqual regulates.”

Ofqual said today that there is evidence that the “variety of approaches currently in place to manage this provide different levels of oversight”.

It has also been found that the terms “moderation” and “verification” are often used interchangeably and in ways which are inconsistent with Ofqual’s rules.

Chief regulator Sally Collier said: “We have conducted a detailed review of the use of centre assessment and believe that there are risks that can be managed better.

“The controls that awarding organisations have in place with centres must be sufficiently robust for the public to have confidence that assessment standards are being maintained between training providers and over time.”

Dawe added: “While to many it sounds like a technicality, the differences between verification and moderation are critical, particularly in terms of the timely confirmation of apprentices and students achievements.”

Awarding bodies will be given time to introduce these new requirements for existing qualifications, after Ofqual gave them a deadline of January 2021.

A spokesperson for the regulator said the proposed deadline will allow AOs to make the necessary changes to meet its new requirements and roll them out to centres, following announcement of its final decisions at the end of this year.

She added that where AOs can “meet these sooner, including for new qualifications, we would expect them to do this”.

FE Week understands that the changes could be in place in time for the new functional skills qualifications, due for introduction at the end of this year.

Ofqual’s consultation is open until 20 May.