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”.