Talks are under way to replace functional skills exams with “portfolio evidence grading” for apprentices who are unable to sit the tests due to Covid-19 restrictions, FE Week can reveal.

Around 30,000 work-based learners, mostly in the health and care sectors, are currently estimated to be stuck in limbo and unable to complete the English and maths programme because their employer will not release them to attend test centres or allow onsite visitors in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus.

Many awarding bodies have struggled to create remote invigilation and testing solutions, while Ofqual and the government has ruled out a return to centre-assessed grades, despite pleas from the sector.

Following a crunch meeting with awarding bodies, Ofqual and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers last week, skills minister Gillian Keegan has said she is “more committed than ever to finding a solution”.

AELP has now been given the green light to explore with Ofqual a “portfolio of evidence” solution to allow apprentices to progress. Discussions began this week.

Under the proposal, students and their training provider would submit evidence, such as initial and on-programme assessments, marked mock documentation, evidence of teaching and learning through a learning platform, workshop or group sessions, and any one-to-one sessions with trainers.

A “professional discussion” would follow. Awarding organisations would then carry out a “remote sample check to ensure that consistent and fair assessment judgments are being made by centres”.

Ofqual said it was now reviewing the proposal but could not say when it would make a decision on whether or not to sign it off.

A Department for Education spokesperson added: “We continue to work closely with Ofqual, awarding organisations and sector representatives to monitor the situation and agree how we can, together, identify and support apprentices that are unable to take their functional skills exam.”

AELP managing director Jane Hickie said she hopes “for the sakes of the apprentices and their frustrated employers” that agreement on a way forward can be reached as soon as possible, warning that the “logjam” of apprentices unable to complete their programmes is “growing bigger”. 

Jill Whittaker, managing director of independent provider HIT Training, has hundreds of such apprentices and told FE Week she has seen a “huge increase” in reported “mental health concerns in our learners” as the uncertainty around their programmes is “adding to the strain on them”, particularly in care settings.

She said that she “fully supports” the AELP proposal of introducing portfolio evidenced grading for functional skills learners until normal testing is available again for all.

“It would be unthinkable to delay GCSE, A-level and degree students’ grades for months and months, with no end in sight, until a solution for testing could be found. It should be equally unthinkable for apprentices and other FE and work-based learners,” Whittaker told FE Week.

Hickie said the government’s initial response to the functional skills issue was “disappointingly slow”, and while DfE and Ofqual have tinkered with the system to ease the situation, Whittaker says the solutions put forward by officials have been “insufficient”.

In October, the ESFA extended the end dates for legacy functional skills qualifications, set to end on December 31, 2020, through to July 2021. The agency also temporarily suspended the requirement within the apprenticeship funding rules for level 2 apprentices to attempt level 2 functional skills assessments.

And earlier this month, the ESFA expanded its “examination support service” to allow apprenticeship providers to book Covid-secure exam space, and invigilators, and to claim additional funding where this exceeds their normal delivery costs.

Hickie said that while the AELP welcomes the “effort to move things forward”, the authorities have “acknowledged our concerns about employers not releasing apprentices from the workplace to attend test centres and so this doesn’t really represent a step change in their approach”.

England’s biggest awarding bodies are continuing their developments of remote functional skills tests to help the affected learners, but it could still be months before they’re made available.

Pearson is currently working on an online proctoring solution, while City & Guilds is running trials for remote invigilation solutions and they plan to launch “further scalable solutions over the next few months”.

Whittaker said HIT Training is part of a pilot for an online testing solution put forward by NCFE, but this is “only just starting and is not yet ready”.

Some awarding bodies have, however, been successful in rolling out “at-home” functional skills tests. These include Open Awards and Highfield, which involve remotely invigilated online assessments using technology such as screen share, webcams, digital audio and a tethered smart device (like a mobile phone).