Ofqual investigation ‘made me feel like a criminal’

Apprenticeship assessment firm exits market after regulator’s audit left owner feeling suicidal

Apprenticeship assessment firm exits market after regulator’s audit left owner feeling suicidal

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Ofqual has been accused of driving an awarding body out of the apprenticeship assessment market with an “excruciating” and “unfair” investigation that left its business “untenable” and owner feeling suicidal.

QFI Ltd has surrendered its recognition as an end-point assessment organisation (EPAO) amid a series of proposed special conditions from the exams regulator, which would include a public statement that it can’t register apprentices without permission.

The company claimed Ofqual used “minor” and “petty” data errors to impose the conditions, as well as “inappropriate evidence gathering” including a near-five hour “interrogation” of the responsible officer that forced her to turn to stress medication.

Chief executive Richard McClelland has spoken out about how the six-month “traumatic” audit affected his team’s mental and physical wellbeing. Ofqual simply denied this after concerns were raised and put the company “to strict proof” of the allegation.

McClelland’s team likened the investigation approach to the widely held view of Ofsted, which has faced fierce criticism after the death of headteacher Ruth Perry sparked schools to speak out about the impact of the watchdog’s reports. Perry’s family said she took her own life in January after her school was rated ‘inadequate’.

QFI also alleged its treatment by Ofqual was part of a wider culling exercise of smaller EPAOs based on a desire to shrink the awarding body sector. It comes as the regulator launches a sector-wide review of EPAO capacity and delivery.

Ofqual declined to defend itself against the allegations at the time of going to press, but following publication a spokesperson said: “As this is an ongoing investigation, it would be clearly inappropriate for us to provide detailed comment, but we do not recognise the characterisation of our processes which are focused on securing quality for students and apprentices.”

Expansion requests trigger capacity concerns

QFI entered the EPAO market in 2015 to offer specialist apprenticeship assessments in areas such as civil engineering or engineering construction. It has 16 full-time staff and 10 contracted specialist assessors who have conducted a modest 1,000-odd EPAs to date.

McClelland said his firm operated successfully under the regulation of the Education and Skills Funding Agency when it was listed as an EPAO for around 60 apprenticeship standards, but this changed after the 2020 decision whereby all EPAOs would need to gain recognition as an Ofqual-approved awarding body.

QFI successfully gained Ofqual recognition but opted to go through the process in batches of standards. From November 2021 the company began to submit expansion requests, and was successful in getting three such requests over the line by December 2022 bringing it up to 47 standards.

The EPAO submitted a fourth and final expansion request in January 2023, but this appeared to trigger concerns around QFIs capacity and capability to efficiently meet a hypothetical flood in apprentice demand across all the standards it offers, as well as how it manages its systems, controls and finances.

QFI said the idea of a sudden 10-fold surge in the numbers of apprentices requiring assessments on the standards it did EPA for was a “fallacy”, adding that there are several controls within the apprenticeship market that prevent unanticipated volumes. But Ofqual stood by its concerns that the company was not resourcing enough for such an expansion.

The resulting investigation led to proposed special conditions which would effectively put the EPAO out of business, including a ban on enrolling any apprentice it wants to assess without gaining Ofqual’s permission first through a business case.

QFI was told it must also publish a statement on its website notifying employers and training providers of the restrictions.

A member of QFI’s advisory board said the situation was “like Sainsbury’s putting a sign up saying ‘don’t buy apples from this store until you’ve had them checked by the food standards agency’”, adding that customers would turn away due to this reputational damage.

‘I was interrogated and felt like a criminal’

McClelland claimed the audit was flawed on several grounds, including that the regulator used the negative testimony of a conflicted training provider, which was vying to become one of his competitors, as “gospel”.

Ofqual used the provider’s comments as evidence throughout its investigation report to conclude that the EPAO had significant delays in approving gateway evidence and was not ready to assess apprentices on some standards, according to QFI.

The regulator also allegedly used leading questions when interviewing other providers QFI delivered EPA for. Also, it gave as little as two working days to turn around large volumes of data that in some cases required third-party cooperation.

QFI said Ofqual also accused the company of non-compliance with its rules by using “minor transgressions” such as an assessor’s name missing from a list, or a line of data on a spreadsheet not being added up.

McClelland’s main reason for surrendering recognition is the impact that Ofqual’s investigation approach had on the health of his employees.

QFI’s responsible officer, Julie Murphy, has worked in the education and awarding sector for around 30 years. As part of Ofqual’s audit, she was subject to a nearly five-hour long interview on her own, conducted by three investigators, that left her “traumatised”.

Julie Murphy

Murphy told FE Week: “They wanted me for five hours and I was losing sleep in the run up to it. I ended up going to my GP and was prescribed beta blockers to manage the physical effects of stress.

I felt like I was in an interrogation. There was no chance for me to demonstrate how QFI’s systems worked, the investigators were very targeted and were out to prove we had done something wrong. All we’ve done is try to grow at pace.

“They even escorted me to the bathroom when I wanted to use the toilet. I felt like a criminal.”

Shortly after the interview Murphy was sent meeting notes but she “couldn’t bear to look”.She said: “Goodness knows what I was saying after four hours of questioning. I could not relive the experience.

“I’ve been in this game for 30-odd years, a qualified teacher, published researcher, worked at high levels within a number of awarding bodies, and to be treated like this is just appalling. There was a total lack of respect and regard for a person’s welfare.”

Aside from the distressing interview, Murphy said she felt “harassed” by Ofqual’s investigation team because of the “constant requests for information at short notice including weekends and bank holidays”.

McClelland himself was subject to a two-hour interview which he left feeling suicidal.

“On the way home from my interview, when I got to the train station, for the first time in my whole life, I thought about the people who jump out in front of trains, and doing it in a split second when you think the whole world is against you.

“It reminded me of the Ruth Perry situation. Does it have to happen again? They are pushing us to breaking point.”

McClelland communicated the health concerns to Ofqual, but the regulator responded by saying any such allegations of deteriorating health are “put to strict proof”.

“So, if I’m feeling suicidal do I need to commit suicide to provide proof of that?” McClelland asked.

He also reported Ofqual to the Department for Education, but no action was taken. “There’s no accountability, all the regulators and officials pass the buck at every opportunity,” McClelland said.

The DfE declined to comment.

Ofqual accused of culling exercise

QFI claimed that Ofqual’s conduct is part of a wider agenda at play to strip back the EPAO market. 

Numbers of EPAOs grew rapidly in the early years following the apprenticeship levy, which led to calls for a “purge” after FE Week found instances of one-man bands and other brand-new companies with no experience in apprenticeships gaining a place in the market.

There were around 300 EPAOs before Ofqual became the sole provider of external quality assurance for apprenticeship assessment, and forced all assessment organisations to apply for recognition.

A previous FE Week investigation found that more than 40 EPAOs did not make the cut by the end of 2022. Some newcomers have however come onboard. There are currently 274 EPAOs on the government’s apprenticeship provider and assessment list.

Murphy said: “Ofqual doesn’t want lots of awarding organisations. When government decided that Ofqual was going to be the sole external quality assurance provider, that was a culling exercise.

“My belief now is this is the second stage of the culling exercise to say ‘we can’t push them all away so let some through and then we’ll start picking on their resource and capability’.”

Last week, Ofqual sent a letter to the EPAO sector requesting vast amounts of information about their individual capacity and “competence” to deliver assessments, plus their wider experiences as part of a review.

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4 Comments

  1. The so called “Inspectors” of Ofqual, Ofsted, ESFA, etc. need a proper scrutiny, as they make judgements that affect (mostly adversely) about businesses and hundreds of jobs

  2. It is not fair to treat people like this. QFI are the only EPAO for some very niche standards. There are 100’s of learners now without and EPAO because of this and Ofqual dont think its their responsibility to sort that out!

  3. Anonone

    Ofqual need investigating, they appear to be autonomous just like the post office scandal.
    To use the challenge of sudden increases of EPA’s and the resources available is ridiculous, most EPAO’s have ‘associate’ assessors, who respond promptly and capacity to deliver is part of the application process to become an EPAO in the first place.