Apprentice assessment organisation hit by 'significant cancellations'

A leading apprentice assessment organisation has told FE Week they are already experiencing “significant cancellations” following the coronavirus outbreak.

A spokesperson for Highfield Group, one of the busiest end-point assessment organisations (EPAO) that is approved for 38 apprenticeship standards, said the cancellations were mainly as a result of employers restricting site access to visitors, as well as apprentices being redirected to frontline activities during the current situation.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, claimed that “a significant proportion” of EPAs would not happen without dropping face-to-face assessments, and said that there had been thousands of cancellations already, in a letter to members on Thursday.

He called on the government to drop end-point observations and replace them with “a remote professional discussion” to allow apprentices to achieve their programme.

While some assessments can and are being conducted online and remotely, some have warned that this will not be possible in many cases.

At the time of going to press an announcement on apprenticeship assessment flexibilities appeared imminent.

The FE and skills minister Gillian Keegan told FE Week: “We are continuing to work closely with the sector to work through a range of areas that have been raised in order to provide clarity and certainty.

“I would like to thank everyone for their continued support and cooperation during these challenging times and we will provide an update as soon as we possibly can.”

FE Week spoke to a number of EPAOs to find out what impact the pandemic has already been having.

Charlotte Bosworth, managing director of Innovate Awarding, which is approved for 39 different standards, told FE Week 80 per cent of their planned assessments had been cancelled this week.

She said remote assessment was proving “very difficult” in many cases and called for the announcement of a similar policy on apprenticeship exams as there has been on GCSEs and A-levels, where planned summer exams will no longer be going ahead but students will still receive their qualifications.

“Learners who have demonstrated sufficient competence through the knowledge, skills and behaviour during the programme, and are able to successfully complete their gateway conversations, should be put forward to EPAOs who would ratify this decision through professional discussions on the telephone,” Bosworth continued.

Jamie Holland, EPA commercial and planning manager at City & Guilds, said the organisation had experienced “minimal changes” to the way it works with EPAs at this point in time.

“However, we do expect this to change over coming weeks, with more EPAs to be completed remotely and some potential cancellations,” he added.

Holland stated that “many” of the more than 50 standards for which City & Guilds completes EPAs have on-line functionality already. But he also acknowledged that many other standards would not be able to operate observations remotely.

“In these challenging times, we would hope that IfATE would be able to allow all parties to utilise professional discussions in the place of technical observations, so that the knowledge, skills and behaviours are still assessed, albeit through an alternative method to that stated in the assessment plan.”

Similarly, a spokesperson for NCFE claimed employers and providers had not wanted to cancel EPAs over the last two weeks.

But in anticipation of cancellations, the EPAO has been expanding digital assessment options and implementing options which could be undertaken from apprentices’ home environments, in attempts to keep EPAs on track.

The spokesperson added: “We are currently in discussions with the DfE, IfATE, Ofqual and other regulators to identify a viable suitable alternative to face-to-face observation, which is the only assessment method we are currently unable to offer.

“We have proposed a number of options to our regulators which would allow apprentices to complete all components of their assessment.”

A spokesperson for the Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education told FE Week: “We are working on a package of measures with the Department that will assist providers, EPAOs to respond to these exceptional new circumstances, while protecting the interests of apprentices and maintaining quality.”