Coronavirus covered: Coupland in conversation with FE Week

FE Week was joined by Jennifer Coupland, chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), during this week’s webcast on the response to the coronavirus pandemic for the FE and skills sector.

Here are the main takeaway points.

1) Temporary discretions and flexibilities for over 100 apprenticeship standards

Coupland outlined how external quality assurance bodies had agreed flexibilities to the delivery of end-point assessments (EPAs), such as by allowing online assessment, across more than 100 standards.

This included “fundamental” changes to around 30 assessment plans by, for example, replacing a workplace observation with a professional discussion.

She also pointed out that the IfATE is permitting the “re-sequencing” of the EPA process to enable the EPA to be taken before the functional skills calculated result is received.

Coupland said the institute wants to ensure there is “no cliff edge on these flexibilities” so they will keep them under review and assess them on a case-by-case basis.

2) ‘Deep dives’ planned for remote EPAs

The IfATE is looking to conduct “deep dives” into the operation of assessment flexibilities to ensure the “balance between flexibility and quality is being maintained”.

Coupland continued: “I think we would be remiss if we didn’t also look at things that actually we’re learning from doing things in a really innovative and creative way that actually might be better for the longer term.”

She is planning a “lessons learned exercise” with the sector to examine where improvements can be made to the system.

3) Monitoring the survival of EPA organisations

Coupland said the IfATE is working with the Education and Skills Funding Agency and Ofqual to look at the sustainability and viability of EPA organisations going forward.

She said they want to avoid a scenario where EPAOs have “gone to the wall” as a result of the pandemic and “we have gaps in the ability to assess apprentices against those standards”. The bodies are determining whether it is a widespread problem and are thinking about what actions they could take to mitigate the risks.

4) Backing for the PM’s ‘apprenticeship guarantee’

The chief executive claimed “you don’t really get much better” than the prime minister talking about apprenticeships, in reference to when Boris Johnson promised to “look at the idea” of giving young people aged 16 to 25 an apprenticeship guarantee.

She asserted it was “very early days” as IfATE will have to work “very” closely with the DfE to establish what it would “genuinely involve” and how it might be delivered.

5) Quickly adapting standards to meet new ways of working

Coupland said the IfATE has work under way to adjust to industry changes, the first of which is a “revisions process”. This will enable an employer group to update an individual standard rather than having to wait for a full-scale route review if there is “a whole new suite of things that people are being expected to do” where an industry has “moved on”.

The other is consideration of using different mechanisms to develop particular “novel” modules that could be “pulled off the shelf” and added to a standard in the event that something emerges quickly, such as new emerging technologies.

6) ‘Right decision’ made on frameworks switch-off

Coupland lent her support for the secretary of state’s decision to carry on with the July 31 date for turning off starts on frameworks, even in sectors where there is no viable replacement standard ready.

She said: “I think we’ve got really good coverage now of the economy with standards, so the 550 standards covers 90 per cent or more of the existing frameworks, and so on that basis I think that he [Gavin Williamson] has made the right decision to proceed with the timetable”.

She added that due to the long, seven-year run-up to the switch-off there “isn’t really any kind of excuse for being surprised” by the decision and that postponing moving to the system would mean “delaying the opportunity for all of those apprentices who would otherwise benefit” from the new standards Coupland describes as “more rigorous and better quality”. 

7) No regrets on business admin level 2 rejection

The IfATE boss was asked whether she regretted turning down the proposal for a level 2 business administration apprenticeship standard, which was developed by many high-profile employers, including the NHS, given the likely demand post-coronavirus from young people.

Coupland replied: “So we’ve got a live business administration level 3 standard and the take-up of that is really increasing rapidly. I think people will gain confidence that that is something young people are able to access as we go forward.

“I do not regret the decision to not pursue the level 2. I do think that, as we highlighted back in the Richard Review, as you start to increase standards in apprenticeships, there are going to be some things in the framework world that no longer meet those quality tests.”

She added that IfATE needs to ensure there is a wide range of training opportunities for young people and older adults who want to upskill and retrain if they’re affected negatively by Covid-19, but that “it can’t just be an apprenticeship solution to every skills problem”.