Apprentices stuck in limbo as Covid hits functional skills tests

Thousands of apprentices are “stuck in limbo” as awarding bodies struggle to adapt their functional skills assessments in the face of Covid-19, training providers have warned.

Leaders of providers, who say they cannot physically visit some of their work-based learners to invigilate their tests especially in the care and health sectors, have described the situation as “heart-breaking” and a “kick in the teeth” for those who are waiting for the exam in order to complete their programme.

Calls have been made for Ofqual to revert to centre-assessed grades for these qualifications but the regulator has rejected the plea and stressed that it is down to awarding bodies to come up with a solution.

One apprentice told FE Week that she feels “frustrated” and “disadvantaged” by the bureaucracy, while another said the delay is causing him “additional stress”.

The Federation of Awarding Bodies has defended its members, insisting that “we need to remember the unprecedented summer just gone” before criticising exam boards.

After this summer’s exam series was cancelled in March due to the pandemic, Ofqual moved to a system of teacher-calculated grades for functional skills qualifications.

But since August 1, 2020, the regulator has banned the use of centre-assessed grades for all vocational and technical qualifications, including functional skills.

All functional skills exams must now either be sat in the traditional manner, or awarding bodies must adapt their assessment arrangements to mitigate any impact of the pandemic.

But coming up with an adapted assessment solution for all affected learners has become an issue for some awarding bodies. Many apprentices are being instructed to work from home in line with government guidelines and are being instructed not to travel to centres for exams due to risk of spreading Covid-19.

Some workplaces that are open will not allow assessors to visit as their employees are having to use all available space which is restricted because of social distancing and safety measures.

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers estimates that tens of thousands of functional skills exams, mostly for apprentices but also for some learners funded by the adult education budget, could be delayed from now until Christmas as a result.

In her update to members this week, AELP managing director Jane Hickie said the delays are “due to a lack of access to workplace settings, learners working from home and some awarding organisations being behind the curve on being able to provide a technology solution, including a lack of proctoring”.

She added that with a “fresh lockdown coming, this is just going to squeeze access and deliverability even more”.

Jane Hickie

‘I feel frustrated and disadvantaged’

Jill Whittaker, the managing director of independent provider HIT Training, told FE Week that she has 360 apprentices who cannot achieve by the end of October as planned, and another 560 who will not be able to achieve by the end of the calendar year owing to these issues.

The majority are in hospitality, care, early years and NHS settings which Whittaker says are all “unable to facilitate being completed in the workplace due to social distancing, and the potential spread of Covid causing a risk to staff, customers, care users”.

Both of the awarding bodies that HIT Training work with to deliver functional skills do not “have a solution in place right now”, Whittaker said, adding that this is “damaging to progression, confidence and achievement”.

She also warned: “Ultimately without an extension to flexibilities, learners will leave the programme, not achieve and it will unnecessarily damage their future prospects at a time when the job market is fragile to say the least.”

Max Turton (pictured top left with his manager Josh Bird) is training towards a level 2 food and beverage service apprenticeship with HIT at The Eagle and Child Inn in Bury but has had his functional skills exam delayed for over a month now.

“It’s causing me additional stress,” he told FE Week. “My trainer Andy has been really supportive and is helping to keep me motivated but things feel like they are starting to drag on a lot further as I don’t know when I can go through my gateway.”

Jacqui Oughton, managing director of charitable provider Ixion Holdings, part of the Shaw Trust, said she has almost 250 learners waiting to sit their functional skills exams in sectors such as health and social care and  construction.

One of them is Lisa Jones, a level 3 lead adult care worker apprentice at The Oaks Residential Care Home in Upminster, Essex.

She told FE Week: “I feel frustrated and disadvantaged that I am being held up in completing my functional skills qualifications because of bureaucracy. I understand we are not letting people into the home but surely there are alternative solutions that can be used to allow me to complete my functional skills exams.”

Oughton said it is “essential that all contributory bodies recognise the impact this is having and they need to put themselves in the shoes of those learners who are trying to progress and listen to the frustrations and tears that we are getting from people who are trying to secure their futures”.

Nichola Hay, chief executive of Estio Training, joined Whittaker, Oughton and the AELP in calling on Ofqual to return to centre-assessed grades for functional skills, warning that the response from awarding bodies and government “has not been quick enough”.

Jacqui Oughton

‘We are working as hard and as quickly as possible to get this resolved’

An Ofqual spokesperson said that since August, awarding organisations have provided functional skills assessments “as normal” for the “majority of learners” and that over 17,000 “live” assessments have taken place.

While a spokesperson confirmed that the regulator is “aware that some learners are facing challenges in taking assessments in their work setting due to coronavirus”, they do “not intend to extend the earlier provision of calculated results for functional skills qualifications”.

Awarding organisations are “working with training providers to put in place arrangements for those learners to access alternative venues or undertake remote assessments,” Ofqual added.

One of those awarding bodies is City & Guilds, which had announced they were set to roll out functional skills tests to be sat at home prior to lockdown.

But the organisation was forced to divert its resource into dealing with the exams fiasco throughout the summer. The at-home tests are still being worked on, but there is no date for their rollout.

David Phillips, City & Guilds’ managing director, said his organisation is “working hard to find additional delivery options as quickly as possible and are currently testing a number of remote invigilation options”.

“We are also assessing the possibility of opening some functional skills test centres across the country,” he added. “We understand completely how frustrating this is for learners and apprentices who are affected, and I would like to assure them all we are working as hard and as quickly as possible to get this resolved.”

Phillips stressed that despite some learners being affected, “many learners and apprentices are still able to take their functional skills qualifications as usual, using a range of methods, including online E-volve tests, remote assessment of speaking, listening and communicating and by taking tests at their employer’s premises if their workplace is accessible”.

Pearson has also been able to offer adapted online assessment for some of its functional skills learners. For those where this has not been possible, the awarding body is currently working on other options to offer individual centres, including an “online proctoring solution” and scheduling socially distanced exams.

A spokesperson for NCFE said it has amended its assessment variation process to allow for additional and adapted delivery arrangements, which are already available for their paper-based and online offer. The awarding body is also working on a “remote invigilation solution” which they hope to launch at the end of October.

Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said: “Before people start criticising awarding organisations, we need to remember the unprecedented summer just gone. The government’s U-turn on the A-level algorithm and the eleventh-hour decision to use centre-assessed grades placed a massive resource load on an already stretched system.

“Staff worked night and day to get results out so learners could progress. Inevitably, along with Covid restrictions, this issue has caused some difficult knock-on effects, including a short-term challenge around the issuing of functional skills results.

“Awarding organisations continue to innovate by moving assessments online, for example, by adopting a model of secure remote invigilation. What we need from the regulator is flexibility and pragmatism as we look to ensure that no functional skills learner is disadvantaged.”