An adviser to the government’s apprenticeship quango has quit after FE Week found he had set up an assessment company and then broke official advertising rules.
Lee Allsup, one of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) route panel members, left the role this week and his new end-point assessment organisation (EPAO) has stopped claiming to offer standards they are not approved to assess.
It comes amid what this newspaper understands to be serious government concerns over the maturity of the EPAO market, more than a year after sector leaders called for the register to be “purged”.
They have allowed a situation to develop, that has more in common with the Wild West
After being shown this latest case, Tom Bewick, the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said officials are “repeating all the same mistakes” and called for the register to be closed and reviewed.
The EPAO in question, Allsup&Dale Limited, was co-founded by chef Lee Allsup whose past jobs have included working at the The Ritz, and incorporated in September 2019.
It was the only company added to the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s register of EPAOs in an update last month, taking the total on there to 268. It is currently only approved to assess apprentices on the level 2 baker standard.
However, the company was advertising on its website that it was approved to assess seven standards, one of which, the fish monger, requires registration with Ofqual. The exams regulator told FE Week Allsup&Dale has not submitted an application for registration to date.
The firm’s website also marketed a further seven standards “coming soon”.
This is despite Education and Skills Funding Agency rules for EPAOs stating: “While we encourage you to directly promote your end-point assessment service to employers you must only do this once you are approved for the register and only for the standard(s) and assessment plan(s) you are registered to assess against.”
What’s more, Allsup was a panel member for the IfATE catering and hospitality route.
The role is advertised as being to “review and make recommendations on whether or not to approve apprenticeship proposals, standards and assessment plans” as well as “make recommendations on funding bands for apprenticeship standards”.
After FE Week brought this to their attention, the ESFA took action. Allsup&Dale was contacted earlier this week and told that they are in breach of the conditions of acceptance, and that they are required to update their website accordingly.
The following day Allsup told FE Week: “You will note that our website clearly states the position of our application process for all the additional EPAs we are hoping to eventually deliver.”
He added: “I am no longer on the hospitality route panel team, I stepped down to prevent a possible conflict of interest.”
Allsup only left the role on Wednesday after this newspaper asked about the obvious conflict of interest the day before. He has since been removed from the IfATE’s website.
A further misleading claim made on Allsup&Dale’s website is that the organisation has “over 70 years developing and progressing the education system in food manufacturing, engineering and hospitality and catering”.
Allsup did not respond to requests for comment about this.
The ESFA did say that as part of EPAO conditions, providers can indicate details of standards that they plan to apply for, but they must make it clear that they are not approved to deliver those standards.
The IfATE said it does not comment on individual cases but told FE Week “we are clear that individuals should declare all conflicts of interest, and we will always investigate and take action where necessary”.
Application guidance states: “You must declare to the Institute any personal or business interest which may or may be perceived (by a reasonable member of the public) to influence your judgement in performing the functions and obligations of a route panel member.”
Questions were also raised over whether Allsup&Dale was fast-tracked to get onto the register. EPAOs are assigned an ID number when they join the register. Allsup&Dale’s number is 303 – which is 15 ahead of the next most recent addition.
The ESFA claimed this was due to a technical issue, adding that the glitch is currently being investigated.
The government was urged to have a clear-out of its register of EPAOs in March last year after FE Week found a sole trader and a new company with no trading history had successfully applied.
At that time, the Federation of Awarding Bodies warned of the “extremely weak” approach to allowing EPAOs onto the register.
“It really is unacceptable that ESFA have not acted on our concerns,” Bewick said this week.
“Instead, they have allowed a situation to develop, that has more in common with the Wild West, than a taxpayer-supported apprenticeship system.
“Things are getting so out of hand, that even some new entrants to the marketplace are offering ’no-win, no fee’ arrangements in order to secure business.”
He told FE Week that three “urgent things” now need to happen.
First, the register “should be closed to new entrants with immediate effect”.
Second, IfATE should lead a “fundamental review, supported by the Quality Alliance partners, into the independence and integrity of the EPAO marketplace”.
“If I have seen a significant amount of evidence of conflicts of interest and sharp practices going on in the marketplace, then I’m sure others have to,” Bewick said.
“I am sent anecdotal evidence all the time of provider-owned EPAOs offering advantageous referral rates which would not exist if there was a clearer operational separation between these two aspects of apprenticeship delivery.”
Thirdly, he said, the planned takeover of the external quality assurance of apprenticeship standards, reassigned to Ofqual in future, “should mean that these bodies hold the EPAO register going forwards, and not the ESFA”.
The current EPAO market in numbers
Around half of all registered end-point assessment organisations have not delivered a single end-point assessment to date, the government has admitted.
Education and Skills Funding Agency data obtained by FE Week via a Freedom of Information request shows that 53,362 EPAs have been completed since 2016/17 to date.
However, they would not reveal the names of the organisations that delivered them.
An official said this was because this “could be prejudicial against EPAOs and their commercial interests”, but they do “anticipate sharing this information in the future when the market is more developed”.
While they could not reveal the names, a spokesperson for the agency told FE Week that over half of all EPAOs have delivered end-point assessments.
For a “significant majority” of the others, they are in their readiness development period or have not yet been engaged to deliver end-point assessment.
They added that for over 200 standards which are approved for delivery, apprentices have not yet reached gateway and so the EPAO are not required to deliver yet.
There are currently 268 EPAOs on the government’s provider register.
EPA numbers have, unsurprisingly, been shooting up each year ever since 2016/17 when apprenticeship standards were first brought in to replace frameworks.
In the first year, 299 EPAs were completed, while 26,570 were carried out in 2018/19.
A total of 23,496 EPAs have been completed so far in 2019/20.
The level 3 team leader / supervisor standard, which takes apprentices 12 months to complete, has racked up the most EPAs since 2016/17 – 4,680 in total.
Second was the level 2 customer service practitioner standard, which again has a typical duration of 12 months, after recording 3,595 EPAs.
Third was the 12-month level 2 adult care worker standard with 2,929 EPAs.