Why not give Ofqual more power over apprenticeship standards?

The assessment community is calling for Ofqual’s role in apprenticeships to be extended – which shows something is badly wrong, says Gemma Gathercole

When I first started working for OCR way back in 2005, there was a single body responsible for both the content of qualifications and their regulation: the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. 

It is a difficult task, designing the rules governing content, and then writing the rules that regulate it in the form of qualifications and regulating the organisations that offer them. And because it is a difficult task, it led inevitably to questions about conflicts of interest. For those with long memories in this sector, and I don’t yet count myself as one, there are probably many more examples of this sort of conflict. 

However, we are on the verge of recreating exactly that sort of conflict in a new organisation: the Institute for Apprenticeships, but the picture is now even more complex.

Now is the time to act

For apprenticeship standards, there is no single approach to external quality-assurance. Depending on the version of documentation you read, there are three, four or five. The official government guidance says there are three options: an employer-designed solution within specified parameters set by the guidance, professional bodies taking on the role, or Ofqual regulation. 

The fourth, isn’t described as an option as it’s a route of default rather than choice: the Quality Assurance Agency, which retains its remit for regulating degrees, and therefore degree apprenticeships. 

And in FAQs or presentations given before the IfA launched, there has also been a fifth option: to ask the IfA itself to take on the role. 

It’s this final option that provides the same conflicts of interest that afflicted QCA. And what happened to QCA? Well, it was disbanded and from it two organisations were created: the now-defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and Ofqual, as an independent regulator. The legislation that established Ofqual gave it five objectives: qualifications standards, assessments standards, public confidence, awareness and efficiency. It’s hard to understand what might put this at odds with apprenticeships.

At the heart of these reforms is a drive to put those with the right experience at the centre of the design

And yet, in this round of apprenticeship reform, while we are not replacing Ofqual (at least not directly), we are adding further complexity into a system that almost everyone already thinks is too confusing. 

It would be difficult to imagine a similar approach to qualifications like GCSEs and A-Levels, where, say, an academy trust or local authority could set the bar for school-leaving qualifications. So why is it acceptable for apprenticeships?

At the heart of these reforms is a drive to put those with the right experience at the centre of the design. It’s an obvious, important step, but while it’s easy to understand, it is baffling that the same message – about putting those with experience in the driving seat – does not extend to quality assurance and regulation. In an era where budgets are getting tighter, and government expenditure does not reach as far as it once did, spending money on duplicating the functions of an existing non-ministerial department seems frivolous.

Regulators are often disliked – it’s the nature of their role – but the function they fulfil is an important check to ensure quality. At some point, probably in the not-too-distant future, questions are likely to be raised about disparate approaches to quality assurance within apprenticeships. And to where should those concerns be directed?

Indeed, the fact that the assessment community is actually calling for Ofqual’s role in apprenticeships to be extended should indicate that something is wrong. 

It is not common for the regulated to be calling for their regulator to have more power. Correcting this misstep would mean some changes to standards that have already been approved for delivery, but that is much easier to do right now, while the numbers of starts is low. It would certainly be easier to do before the Institute begins to develop a regulatory function, and given it doesn’t yet formally exist, now is the time to act.


Gemma Gathercole is head of funding and assessment at Lsect

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