New provider ‘power’ over EPAOs risks ‘race to the bottom’

Officials warned over 'bombshell' rule

A new rule that puts the power of choosing apprenticeship end-point assessment organisations (EPAO) into the hands of training providers will cause a “race to the bottom” on quality, officials have been warned.

The Department for Education announced this week that from August 1, the register of EPAOs will merge with the register of apprenticeship training providers (RoATP) and be called the “apprenticeship providers and assessment register” (APAR).

Included in the move was a “bombshell” statement, as described by one EPAO, that will make training providers responsible for choosing which organisation should do the end-point assessment for their employers’ apprentices, rather than the employer itself.

Experts told FE Week that providers have always been the main “influencers” when it comes to EPAO selection, although officially it has always been the employers’ choice and they usually pick from a “beauty parade” of offers.

But the new rule will empower providers to “game” the system by “using their right to negotiate the prices for EPA”, according to Terry Fennel, chief executive of awarding body and EPAO, FDQ Ltd.

He said: “Fundamentally now employers are more interested in quality assured services for their apprentices over price for EPA, therefore they are more likely to ‘shop around’ to find the best EPAO. However, providers often behave in reverse, putting ‘price’ over anything else so they will ‘barter’ with EPAOs to get the bottom price.

“If the max charged for an EPA is £2,000, but the EPAO is beaten down to £1,000 the difference is pocketed by the training provider therefore they have commercial incentive to always go with the lowest price.”

The price of an EPA is usually between 11 to 20 per cent of an apprenticeship funding band.

Helen Shinner, managing director of 1st for EPA, agreed with Fennel.

She told FE Week: “Many believe that this change is simply formalising what already occurs. While it’s true that many providers advise employers, we find that having the final decision does keep employers engaged in the process. Plus, they hold the power to switch EPAO if they see the need.

“The big concern is that the change may create a temptation for providers to use as few EPAOs as possible, to keep processes and systems to a minimum. While this may seem like a simplified approach, there’s a danger of taking the easiest route, rather than the best one.”

Shinner continued: “This will hit particularly hard for providers serving niche markets, where they may find that it is the niche EPAOs that hold the assessment expertise, as well as superior customer service. The ultimate result may be a drop in quality and impact apprentice certification.

“The message is: provider beware – don’t sacrifice long term quality and reputation for ‘quick wins’.”

Charlotte Bosworth, managing director of Innovate Awarding, an EPAO that is part of the Lifetime Training Group, said she didn’t see this move as “much as a concern as others”.

Her biggest concern is if EPAOs are “tiered” on the new APAR register so the assessment organisations are “deemed as a subcontractor”.

“This could lead to providers wanting to drive down the price of end-point assessment and create a system where EPAOs are competing mostly on price, which will end up impacting on quality,” she said.

The DfE said further information and guidance on both changes for employers, providers and EPAOs will be made “in the next few weeks”.

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6 Comments

  1. Just Saying

    Asking EPAO’s to be positive about this is like asking Turkeys whether they support the introduction of two Christmas celebrations a year! Why has this article not included comments from the many apprentice training providers who are very unhappy with the EPAO performance they have experienced so far !

  2. Replace the word “ Expert’s” with “ Those with an invested / self interest “

    EPAO are an overpriced tax on achievement. The only concern here is market forces taking hold and dropping the profits they make. In reverse would they stop assessing Apprentices from a low quality provider ? I think not ….

  3. As an employer of over 100 apprentices, I have several concerns, but the biggest of these is that there is no mention of any change regarding policy on who pays for resits. If providers are “back in charge” and will make this key decision, I don’t expect the charges levied for resits to continue. Some providers are fairer than others and pay for 2nd attempts, but many routinely charge another 20% if a resit is required which is effectively profiteering out of failure.

  4. Steve Hewitt

    I’ve worked with about 100 providers over the last six years and have *never* heard of the employer being interested in which EPAO is used. This is categorically just correcting a rule that was only ever honoured in the breach…

  5. Tim Buchanan

    This just reinforces the sham of the employer led apprenticeship system, between IFATE, EFSA and DFE they have managed to slowly but surely to grab back the decision making process. Thus assuring that the supply side of the apprenticeship process is firmly back in the driving seat for apprenticeship decision making . Employers leading the process was always a no no for them, as they couldn’t exert their influence as they like so giving power back to the supply side has reasserted their control.

  6. Robert Watkins

    First thought. If the EPAO quality is that poor, they shouldn’t be on the register.

    Second thought. If the EPAO quality is that important to employers, then they will end up shopping for the provider that works with the EPAO of their choice.

    Third thought: I wonder what the consequences would be if you could let the Apprentice choose their EPAO, assuming there was a proper system in place for reviewing End Point Assessment providers