EPA on trial: DfE to test alternative apprenticeship assessments

Several options are on the table to speed up apprenticeship assessments...but at what cost?

Several options are on the table to speed up apprenticeship assessments...but at what cost?

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Training providers and employers could soon be allowed to assess their own apprentices under plans being drawn up by the Department for Education, FE Week understands.

Officials are planning to test several alternatives to the current end-point assessment (EPA) model in a quest to improve apprenticeship achievement rates and reduce costs and administrative burdens.

Organisations involved in the department’s “expert apprenticeship training provider” group are expected to be allowed to flex EPA requirements in a trial that could begin this summer term. 

FE Week understands several options will be tested across selected apprenticeship standards. 

In one, training providers themselves would carry out part of the EPA, rather than the whole process being done by an independent end-point assessment organisation (EPAO). 

If enacted, this could relieve some of the assessor shortages reported by EPAOs, but could also raise concerns about the reliability of assessments.

Other options on the table are to transfer the assessment of “behaviours” from EPAOs to employers, and to cut the size of EPAs by removing the need for all knowledge, skills and behaviours to be assessed.

A trial like this was hinted at by Robert Halfon, the former skills minister, earlier this year. In his letter to the apprenticeship sector in March, he said his department would “identify further options to improve the assessment model, making it more efficient for the whole sector”.

Since 2017, apprentices have had to pass an EPA to fully achieve their apprenticeship.

EPAs are currently carried out by regulated EPAOs with reference to the assessment plans for each apprenticeship approved the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. 

FE Week understands officials are concerned about the impact of the cost, complexity and the restricted capacity of EPAOs on apprenticeship completion and achievement rates. 

As it stands, 45.7 per cent of students do not fully achieve their apprenticeships. Drop-outs have funding and accountability implications for training providers, even if apprentices leave with qualifications but no EPA.

A number, not disclosed by the department, of apprentices with expert training providers are expected to be in scope for the EPA trial.

DfE would not reveal if it had a target number for apprentices who would take part in the pilot, or confirm which apprenticeship standards would be included.

The department did confirm to FE Week that apprenticeship EPA was under review to ensure that it was proportionate and effective for apprentices and employers. It said it wanted to remove unnecessary bureaucracy while retaining quality and ensuring occupational competence.

But it would not confirm any details relating to the trial, who would be involved, or what its success measures would be.

This is not the first suggestion that training providers could take more ownership of assessment. 

The Association of Colleges last month said its members should be allowed to carry out their own apprenticeship EPAs, removing the need for colleges to contract with EPAOs altogether. 

John McNamara, interim chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said it was “always good to review existing systems and processes”, but added, “we should remember the significant benefits of independent EPA in driving up quality outcomes for apprentices and employers”.

Allowing providers to assess their own apprentices was labelled “high-risk” by another assessment expert. 

Graham Hasting-Evans, chief executive of NOCN, which is an EPAO for multiple apprenticeship standards likely to be in scope in this trial, told FE Week he had “considerable concerns over option one” and thought it was “too high a risk”.

He said there were “merits” to the “possibility [of] combining” some of the other options.

“If new [EPA] arrangements are to work well, we need sensible flexibility in the standards to match the needs of SMEs and the different parts of the country,” Hasting-Evans added.

DfE said it would consider a range of evidence and feedback in determining any longer-term changes to its EPA approach. 

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6 Comments

  1. JustSaying

    Hey Einstein! What do you think an Apprenticeship should be?
    E: “How about a qualification first and then a practical competency test”.
    Come off it Einstein! How can we employ hundreds of bureaucrats and waste millions of pounds with that approach!
    E: ” Don’t worry, you can find something else to do such as running a national Trains service instead! “

  2. If we are now considering going back to centre assessment, we may have just stuck with frameworks. Of course achievement rates used to be higher, people achieved when they hadn’t met all the outcomes of a qualification. Higher achievement rates doesn’t mean higher quality delivery.

  3. Got to disagree with Graham on this one. An entire system set up without enough capacity, from assessors to actual awarding organisations. It adds bureaucracy, delays to progression for apprentices and takes funding out of the system, which could and should be spent on the apprentice experience. There’s only one winner in this system and it definitely isn’t the apprentice or the employer.

  4. Concerned EPA

    As an end point assessor I am often appalled by the lack of understanding from training providers and employers about what an apprentice should know or be capable of is quite disturbing. When an organisation presents their apprentice for a practical observation that they have put together to meet the standard, and it covers less than 50% of the KSBs / EPA Plan. How are they going to be capable of assessing the standard of said apprentices. The trailblazers put the standards together with employers guidance. Then the same employer complains it doesn’t meet our requirements or it is too difficult. Read the guides it is all in black and white. Ps if the EPAO cannot get enough assessors how are the training providers going to find them. Oh I know pay us for our trade knowledge at comparable rates to industry not education. Some apprentices I have signed off immediately earned more than me ????

  5. Geoff Carroll

    So sadly amusing for those of us who have been involved in vocational education for many years. Great temptation to say ‘I told you so’. The previous framework system proved relatively successful compared to what we now have. The decision to throw it overboard was largely politically driven and lacked any real evidence base (unless you take people like Alison Wolf seriously who pretty much produced a damning report on vocational qualifications to order). Contrary to the fake news that accompanied the change, NVQs were produced by employer organisations most of whom used systematic research into the needs of their industries. The frameworks addressed broad occupational areas, not just highly focused job titles, which is far more appropriate to the 21st century world of employment. If there were any doubts about the quality of assessment, these were largely down to the awarding bodies and their patchy quality control mechanisms at the time. A lot more work could have been done to improve these. Lo and behold, the same awarding bodies then get the responsibility for EPAs!
    I started in VET in 1981 and have seen so many similar ‘revolutions’. For some reason (LOL) politicians in England always feel they can tamper at will with technical and vocational. I salute the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish for doing their best to maintain some kind of consistent and stable system by refining what they have, not throwing the baby out with the bath water every 15 years or so.

  6. paul leaman

    Does anyone know how long training providers were allowed to assess themselves before it was decided that this was high risk form of assessment.

    I believe NVQs are still assessed this way.

    I know for myself, some apprenticeships were still externally assessed upto 1992. Maybe this continued on until 1995. Then this model stayed until 2019. So a generation of apprentices have been assed and achieving through high risk assessments. Too late or unfair?