By Suzanne Straw and Andrew Pember
Wednesday 12 December 2018
Changes to Apprenticeships in England, first announced in 2013, are now in full flow. The resulting reform has led to a move away from a framework of competence based qualifications to new Standards, structures, funding and a fundamental rethink of the assessment model, which now no longer includes qualifications at all.
End Point Assessment (EPA) is an assessment of the knowledge, skills and behaviours that demonstrate the apprentice is fully competent in the occupation. It typically requires observation, discussion and a review of the apprentice’s work by a skilled assessor at the end of the training programme. These assessments must be delivered by a registered End Point Assessment Organisation (EPAO), approved by the Education & Skills Funding Agency and independent of the training provider and employer.
So far so good, but as the new Apprenticeships come on line there is real concern around EPA, with some predicting a ‘car crash’ because of lack of sector readiness to resource and deliver the EPA process. So, what’s the truth behind the headlines?
Perceived advantages of EPA
Most stakeholders agree that EPA has benefits, but should it be the only means of assessing capability? According to a recent report by The Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance (SEMTA), whilst many international jurisdictions have some form of EPA as part of the assessment regime, none totally rely on it.
As part of a project NFER is working on with Carina Consulting, we sought the views of more than 20 senior figures in the Apprenticeships sector. They gave us the following pros and cons for EPA:
- The assessments are more ‘real-world’ and relate to specific job roles.
- They allow for an integrated assessment of the student’s performance across the whole standard, rather than in specific tasks.
- Grading is applied, meaning employers can understand the relative strength of candidates.
- Qualifications have been actively discouraged in assessment plans, removing a tangible benefit for learners.
- Some Standards may not be financially viable because the cost of providing the EPA process and infrastructure may not be balanced by available funding, particularly where apprentice numbers are low.
- EPA is a one-off assessment opportunity. This is less suited to some learners than the old, competence based qualifications approach, which allowed them to continually improve their portfolios until ready for sign off.
The current position
In considering the sector’s readiness to deliver EPA, the following issues are starting to emerge:
- EPA is impractical in some sectors, e.g. film/TV production where work is short term and project based, with no time to fit in EPA. Are we disadvantaging learners and an important economic sector?
- There are currently apprentices working towards Standards for which there is no approved EPAO at the time of writing. The numbers impacted are low for now, but does this signal a bigger problem?
- Was the bar set too low for EPAOs in the initial push to establish the system? The readiness of EPAOs to deliver was raised frequently as a cause for concern in our conversations, and some organisations appear to lack the relevant assessment track record - Ofqual are currently investigating.
- Perhaps the overriding concern though is the capacity of the system to deliver EPA. A key advantage of the old qualification-based apprenticeship was that assessment was devolved to staff within the training or work environment, with sampling by Awarding Organisations to verify assessment decisions externally. In the new world every apprentice must be assessed by a suitable external assessor.
This means a much bigger dedicated assessment workforce is needed. When the new programmes are up and running there will be many thousands of learners requiring EPA every month. Where will all of the external assessors come from? Privately, some EPAOs are concerned that it may not be possible to meet this demand, and the result could be serious delays to EPA. This feels like a structural issue rather than simply one of bedding-in.
What could this mean for the learners?
- Work Status. Delays to EPA could impact the apprentices’ employment status, and with that their rights and pay (e.g. many could remain on the lower apprentice minimum wage for longer than they should).
- Cost. EPA is more expensive to deliver than the previous qualification-based model. Apprentices could therefore be pulled off programmes by their employer if they are not on track, and it is also possible that resits will be uncommon due to the higher cost.
- Completions. It is likely that failure rates will increase because of the move away from continual assessment. Learners that fail their EPA could be left with nothing to show for their efforts.
As Apprenticeship policy evolves, we recommend consideration of the following steps:
- A review of approval criteria for training providers and EPAOs – this has started for registered training providers, but should be extended to ensure capacity and quality in the whole system.
- Protection for apprentices doing EPA in the early years, to avoid unnecessary failure.
- Encouraging or requiring qualifications to be incorporated in assessment plans, where practical.
If these issues are not dealt with there is a risk that young people - some of whom will have already experienced repeated failure at school – are subjected to a system that does not properly support them into employment.
Suzanne Straw is Deputy Head of Centre for Policy and Practice Research at NFER
Andrew Pember is Managing Director of Carina Consulting