Exclusive: Third largest awarding organisation pulls out of apprenticeship market

Awarding giant OCR has delivered a major blow to the government’s reforms programme by pulling out of delivering final apprenticeship exams altogether, FE Week can reveal.

The exam board was previously listed on register of apprentice assessment organisations, as an end-point assessor for the level four network engineer and software developer standards.

But an OCR spokesperson confirmed to FE Week today that it has pulled out completely from delivering end-point assessment.

The news comes just two weeks after FE Week reported that changes to the funding rules could price many assessors out of running apprenticeship exams.

“Implementing the reforms to apprenticeships will require a high level of development and investment and OCR has recently decided that, unfortunately, we will not now be pursuing or developing any new apprenticeship standards that incorporate changes in assessment,” the spokesperson for OCR, which will still have to pay the apprenticeship levy from next month, said. 

The exam board would continue to “support apprenticeship programmes offering qualifications that fit into the existing apprenticeship frameworks, including NVQs, VRQs, Cambridge Technicals and Functional Skills,” she added.

According to Ofqual statistics, OCR is the third largest awarding organisation – awarding 1.78 million certificates in 2014/15, which is the most recent published.

The company’s turnover in the accounts year ending July 2016 was £78 million, and its staff pay bill is in excess of £20 million.

This means that OCR will be in the uncomfortable position of having to pay the levy, even though it won’t offer any standards assessment.

FE Week reported two weeks ago that new rules coming into force in May will set the cost of final apprenticeship exams at a fifth of the overall training costs agreed between an employer and a training provider.

This will move away from previous guidelines which set the charge at no more than 20 per cent of the funding-band maximum for that standard.

It was warned at the time that this could leave awarding bodies struggling to apprenticeship final exams at an unrealistically low price, which they would effectively play no part in negotiating.  

Details of what should be included in an apprentice’s final exam are set out by the employer groups developing a standard, and are outlined in the assessment plan.

Some of these can be highly detailed, and therefore have high costs attached to them – which bear no relation to the cost of training.

Stephen Wright, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, warned that the rule change could limit assessors’ ability to deliver the exams.

“Like every other organisation, awarding organisations can only provide their services for a fair price,” he said.

“If the percentage of the price between the trainer and the employer is too low to deliver a valid assessment, then awarding organisations will simply not offer end-point assessments, which will undermine the whole system.”

News of OCR’s defection from the apprenticeship exam market will be a blow for the government, which has been struggling to persuade organisations to sign up to deliver end point assessment.

By the end of January just over half – 81 out of 159 – standards approved for delivery had at least one assessment organisation in place.

But the proportion of learners on standards without an approved assessment organisation has been dropping rapidly, from 42 per cent in July to 18 per cent in October.

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