Apprentices to be given functional skills reprieve after being ‘stuck in limbo’

A flexibility that allows apprentices to take their end-point assessment before their functional skills exam is set to be reintroduced, FE Week understands.

It follows an investigation by this publication that found thousands of apprentices “stuck in limbo” as awarding bodies struggle to adapt their functional skills assessments in the face of Covid-19.

Ministers are understood to be sympathetic to the situation and are looking at ways to mitigate this impact.

While there is currently no suggestion that Ofqual will return to centre-assessed grades for functional skills – as many training providers have called for – flexibilities are expected to be extended to apprenticeship rules.

In May, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education announced a temporary flexibility that enabled apprentices who would otherwise be stuck at gateway to take EPA ahead of receiving their functional skills qualification, which was calculated following the cancellation of exams due to Covid-19, later on in the summer.

The rule applied to all apprentices due to take a functional skills test and receive a result between 20 March and 31 July.

FE Week understands minister Gillian Keegan has now ordered the IfATE to partly reintroduce this flexibility – allowing apprentices to sit their end-point assessment before their functional skills exam.

A timeframe for implementing this is not yet known.

It is also understood that the government will extend the regulation end date for legacy functional skills qualifications, which currently have a deadline of 31 December.

Since 1 August 2020, Ofqual 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 been an issue for most awarding bodies, with remote or ‘at-home’ assessments some way off being made available. 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. This is a particular issue in the health and care sectors.

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.

Jill Whittaker, the managing director of independent provider HIT Training, previously told FE Week there is a particularly urgent need to act on this now as learners on legacy qualifications, which are about to expire, will “miss the opportunity to achieve their functional skills and will be forced to enrol on the reformed functional skills”.

City & Guilds is one major awarding body struggling to launch remote functional skills assessments. The organisation had announced it was set to roll out functional skills tests to be sat at home prior to lockdown but it 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.

Some awarding bodies have however been successful in rollout out remote or “at-home” functional skills tests.

One of them is Open Awards, which told FE Week it has included an option for remotely invigilated online assessments as part of its “controlled assessment policy” for a number of years.

“Our centres are able to apply to deliver remotely invigilated online functional skills at levels 1 and 2 on a one-to-one ratio using our existing assessment platform integrated with remote video-call software,” a spokesperson explained.

“Feedback so far has been positive and it is proving to provide a flexible and robust alternative to classroom-based assessments.”

Highfield is another awarding body that successfully offers remote assessment. It launched a “Qualify at Home” service in April 2020 and over 9,000 exams have since been invigilated via the service.

The assessments are taken online and Highfield invigilators “remotely monitor candidates ensuring their compliance with all of our examination conditions”, a spokesperson told FE Week.

“We achieve this by using four pieces of technology which we believe to be the most robust available in the market: screen share; webcam; digital audio; and a tethered smart device (usually a mobile phone).

“We’re extremely proud that we’ve successfully demonstrated our ability to adapt to changing circumstances and that we’ve created change within the industry during the biggest challenge we’ve all faced in decades.”

 

ESFA confirms some flexibilities

After this article was published, the ESFA confrimed two of flexibilities for functional skills.

Skills minister Gillian Keegan said: “We have extended the end dates for legacy functional skills qualifications through to July 2021 to ensure learners have enough time to complete their outstanding assessments.

“Alongside this we have temporarily suspended the requirement within the apprenticeship funding rules for level 2 apprentices to study towards, and attempt level 2 functional skills assessments, making sure they can complete their programmes.”