Remote assessment guidance too vague and open to malpractice, say awarding bodies

Online assessment will only work for around 40 per cent of apprenticeships and the government’s “vague” guidance in the area opens the market up to “widespread malpractice”, awarding organisations have warned.

Last week the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education announced that face-to-face end-point competency assessment can be carried out remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

But in a letter sent on Monday to the quango’s chief executive, Jennifer Coupland, Federation of Awarding Bodies boss Tom Bewick claimed to have already received “anecdotal evidence” that quality is already being compromised by some providers, who “may be inappropriately interpreting” the guidance as it is “not specific enough”.

The guidance is potentially opening up the system to widespread malpractice

Although he could not share the examples with FE Week, he said his organisation is currently vetting various “skilled trades”, such as the level 2 butcher and level 3 blacksmith apprenticeship standards, where the “application of real world competence is only really proven by a combination of seeing and doing”.

Bewick said that as can be seen in the WorldSkills competitions, the beauty therapist role, for example, is observed working with “real volunteer clients” and “you simply cannot repeat that level of intimacy over Skype or Zoom, especially under the current social distancing rules”.

“FAB estimates that only about 40 per cent of the current frameworks or standards could lend themselves to some kind of remote assessment; and even then we would anticipate some challenges around validity and reliability,” he told FE Week.

His letter to Coupland said he is “not currently confident that the new guidance will protect the quality and integrity of the apprenticeship system as a whole, particularly when there is so much variability and inconsistencyin how the external quality assurance (EQA) providers operate in practice”.

The IfATE’s guidance states that remote assessment can replace faceto-face observation as long as the arrangements are “cleared in advance” by EQA providers and “appropriate” technology and systems are in place.

Remote tests must be “supervised by an appropriately trained invigilator, or qualified assessor, who has the necessary qualifications, training or experience; and who has not been involved in the training, preparation or line management of the apprentice”.

If remote alternatives are not appropriate, a pause of up to 12 weeks in assessment “might be the only action”.

Terry Fennell, chief executive of awarding body FDQ Ltd and FAB vice-chair, said he appreciates that the authorities are trying to keep apprentices passing through the system at a time of strict social distancing measures.

But the “problem arises at the level of practical implementation”.

“Except perhaps for a few standards,many apprenticeships and especially those that require face to face observations are not really geared up for mass-scale remote assessment,” he said.

“Moreover, the government’s guidance is potentially opening up the system to widespread malpractice as EPAOs interpret the flexibilities in different ways that could lead to apprentices receiving inconsistent grades and/or unreliable results.

“The only way I can see potential abuse being minimised is if the Institute requires that all the candidates who pass through assessment in Covid-19 conditions will eventually have their result externally audited, once the crisis is over.”

The IfATE told FE Week that EQA providers have agreed remote assessment plans applying to over 50 apprenticeships standards, for “thousands” of apprentices approaching end-point assessment since their flexibilities were launched last week.

“The institute and EQA providers are working very closely with endpoint assessment organisations who helped to develop the guidance,” a spokesperson said.

“Together we are allowing assessments to be delivered flexibly and remotely, while maintaining quality.”

They added that over 300 of the 538 standards approved for delivery have no EPA due in the next few months