Government is making dangerous errors on apprenticeship assessment

Although the new policy on assessment organisations is intended to drive down overall costs, it’s likely to impact quality at this critical time in the reform programme, says Rob May

Imagine you own a plumbing business.

Your business is contracted to fit the water supply for a newly designed hotel complex. The plans look challenging, but it’s all very exciting and you want to get involved because this is the kind of job you’re really good at.

Naturally, you will want to take great skill and pride in your work. After all, that’s how you’ve earned the trust of the public over decades of trading. At the very least the plumbing system you install will need to meet a minimum standard of regulations as set out by an independent body, which is focused only on the safety and reliability of the water supply, irrespective of what’s going on with the rest of the build.

Sounds straightforward…

But then, you learn the client and the building company have got together and agreed a price deal on the project without consulting you at all. They’ve squeezed the cost of the build right down, and now they simply expect you to accept less money for the same work.

Getting it wrong could have devastating consequences for learners

Not only that, but because there is less money, you may no longer be able to meet even the minimum specifications demanded by the regulator within budget, yet alone make any profit to re-invest in new tools.

This is the situation facing awarding organisations today.

Previously, the guidance issued to assessment bodies was to charge a maximum of 20 per cent of the funding amount allocated for the specific apprenticeship standard being delivered. Now they can only charge 20 per cent of actual price agreed between the employer and the training provider.

A new policy directive on apprenticeships from the Department for Education says exam boards must base their fees for apprenticeship end-point assessments on deals negotiated between employers and training providers, which are likely to take place without their input. With some employers seeking to drive hard bargains with training providers that are eager to secure funding, this could mean a race to the bottom.

The basis for the earlier guidance was itself unsubstantiated and even that model looked challenging for awarding bodies, many of whom were not included in assessment development plans but were left grappling with how to design some fairly impractical tests.

To give employers more control over the content and assessment of apprenticeships, every new apprenticeship standard has an assessment plan produced by ‘trailblazers’ (employer-led groups). This employer panel creates an assessment plan, independent of the workplace and off-the-job training provided.

Employers are certainly well-placed to identify the knowledge, skills and behaviours that apprentices need to have, and they are already used extensively in our qualification development, but most employers readily accept that they do not necessarily have the relevant technical experience in ‘assessment’.

Awarding organisations are experienced in ensuring that assessments are manageable, fair and reliable. It’s what they do day-in, day-out, and under close regulatory scrutiny.

But now delivery and assessment have been merged together when it comes to setting a price for the apprenticeship, which could make the assessment plan desired by employers unworkable.

High quality or low price?

Decoding assessment plans is a complex task. In some instances there is little guidance from trailblazers on core principles such as the required size of the test, the frequency of testing, how to aggregate marks into a final grade and the required size of the question bank needed to avoid predictability over time. Make no mistake, these apprenticeship assessments are highly technical products in a high-profile, high-stakes landscape. Getting it wrong could have devastating consequences for learners starting out on a career. Awarding bodies know this.

The new rules are unviable in an open market

To help make the case on the cost and complexity of translating the trailblazers’ assessment plans into reality, and in the spirit of transparency and co-operation, a number of awarding organisations (including YMCA Awards) presented their fully-worked costings to the Skills Funding Agency, an exercise which now appears to have been a wasted endeavour.

Although the new rules are intended to drive down overall costs, it’s likely to impact quality at this critical time in the reform programme, with the employer levy about to kick in from April. It could even slam on the brakes as awarding bodies which were already thinking twice, must now take a long hard look at the financial feasibility of developing end-point assessments.

What separation?

Another defining feature of the reforms is that assessments will either be delivered by an independent third party, or in such a way that no party who has been involved in delivery of the apprenticeship can make the sole decision on competence and passing the end-point assessment. In other words, quite rightly ensuring separation between provider and assessor to avoid a conflict of interest in the assessment decision.

However this independence doesn’t seem to count when it comes to price-setting. Assessment organisations will want to collaborate closer than ever before with training providers to ensure that appropriate pricing models are used.

Most of the organisations involved in DfE’s recent wave of workshops on ‘How to become an end-point assessment organisation’ have been training providers, looking to set up an ‘independent’ trading vehicle for assessment. Never mind the fact that there are already 160 recognised awarding organisations. Apparently government wants fewer of them and more new, untested and unrecognised assessment organisations.

The move demonstrates yet another fundamental misunderstanding of the education system by policy makers and a lack of knowledge of what’s involved in developing and maintaining high-quality assessment throughout its life-cycle.

The new rules are unviable in an open market, and with only around half (81 out of 159) of standards with at least one assessment organisation in place, the latest directive is not likely to see a surge of apprenticeship assessment organisations entering the market. And if it does, the Institute for Apprenticeships must ask searching questions on the quality of assessments being offered.

Instead of an apprenticeship system that is built to last, is the government building one destined to fail?

I sincerely hope not. The principles underpinning the overhaul of our apprenticeships system are laudable, and we will work hard with government departments and training providers on finding ways to make it work, but in return the DfE must start to listen to the experts and make some sensible decisions, urgently.


Rob May is director of YMCA Awards and a board member at the Federation of Awarding Bodies

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