From education to employment

Cutting through the fog: Ofqual for EpAOs

Jacqui Molkenthin

Having worked within and with EpAOs for the past 6 years, I have seen a number of areas where there is confusion, but none more so than in the past year with regard to Ofqual. So, I thought I would take this opportunity to go through some of the common questions, misconceptions, misinformation, and scaremongering stories that I have heard.

As always with my articles, these are my thoughts and advice. For definitive guidance on areas you are unsure of, you must speak directly to the organisation related to your query, whether that be Ofqual, the ESFA or IfATE. Please also note that this article relates to apprenticeships in scope of Ofqual as the EQA provider, and not those under the OfS.

“If you collaborate with us [an Ofqual recognised Awarding Organisation] you do not need to gain Ofqual recognition”

If you are an EpAO that wishes to remain on the ESFA register of EpAOs then you must gain Ofqual recognition, collaboration with another EpAO does not change that (I will write a separate article on collaboration).

“On-going adherence to contractual obligations and governance protocols for maintaining this [Ofqual] status are onerous, costly and time consuming”

There is no denying that the process is challenging and rigorous, but it brings with it rewards, as recognised by those that have been through it, and from those already approved. All services that are associated with public funding and regulation have rules, requirements and conditions, this should not be a reason not to do something. Please do not let scaremongering put you off.

“I have to recruit and army of new staff to gain and maintain Ofqual approval”

This is not necessarily the case, as an EpAO you will already have people in place developing materials, delivering assessments, carrying out quality assurance, and so on. What you need to do is to look at the requirements of the criteria and conditions and map those to your existing staff and their job descriptions/roles. Once you have done that you will be able to identify if the required roles can be carried out with existing staff or if new / additional staff are required.

“An EpAO end-point assessing a standard that is currently EQA’d by the IfATE (the Institute), will be kicked off the ESFA register at the end of July 2021 if they have not been approved by Ofqual”

The response to the EQA consultation document states that “all organisations wishing to deliver end-point assessment outside of integrated degree apprenticeships will need to be recognised by Ofqual by the time that the standards they deliver transfer to Ofqual”.   The published time line from the ESFA is “By end of July 2021 all standards for which the Institute is the EQA provider will move to Ofqual”. This, in theory, means that if an EpAO is end-point assessing a standard that is currently EQA’d by the IfATE, and they have not been recognised by Ofqual by the end of July 2021, they will no longer be able to continue delivering end-point assessment for that standard. Presumably, this will then mean that, from August 2021, the ESFA will step in and carry out the withdrawal process as detailed in the conditions. I know that this is a very real concern for many EpAOs who are worried about Ofqual making application and panel decisions in time. The policy line remains the unchanged, but the latest response from Ofqual is that extensions to the deadline will be on a case-by-case basis.

“It takes over a year to gain Ofqual approval, the deadline for transfer is July 2021, so what is the point in trying?”

Please do try. If you are committed to end-point assessment and quality, then you should apply. If you have not made an application to Ofqual then you have no argument or case against removal from the ESFA register. But if you are making every effort to engage, apply and gain recognition with a quality application (not thrown in at the last minute), then I believe you have a case to argue for an extension. But please remember this is a personal view not a policy line.

As many of you will know, the transition timeframe is something I am personally very concerned about, and will continue to raise with Ofqual and the ESFA. There are over 200 EpAOs on the ESFA register end-point assessing over 400 standards that are EQA’d by Ofqual or the Institute, and yet, less than 5 months before the deadline, there are only 49 organisations approved by Ofqual for end-point assessment (only 8 of these are solely end-point assessment organisations). From the Ofqual data it appears that just 17 new EpAOs have been approved by Ofqual in the 5 months since September 2020. I personally think that the July 2021 deadline is unattainable and that Ofqual, the Institute and the ESFA will have to extend the transition deadline or apprentices will be left without end-point assessment organisations, and employers left without choice. Ofqual conditions are focussed on minimising risk and “adverse effects” and yet this risk and its associated potential adverse effect on apprentices and the EPA market place is not even mentioned in the Institute risk record in their annual report and accounts.

“Why won’t Ofqual advise or help us on how to meet their criteria?”

If I had a pound for every time I heard this! Sorry I don’t have any answer to this one, it is a solid stance that Ofqual takes and will not shift, on the basis that every organisation is different and that it is not their role to tell you how to do something, it is your role to explain how you meet their criteria. To try and help where I can, I have produced articles and webinars based on my own experiences of ‘how’ you may be able to meet their criteria (available on FE News and on my LinkedIn profile).

“Why has the Ofqual application been locked behind a gateway?”

I can’t answer that, but I think Ofqual are looking at providing a template, although I can’t be sure. The questions are all based on the criteria, so if you are struggling to get access to the questions, I would recommend using the Ofqual guidance document.

“There are only 4 criteria to write text answers to (A, B, C and D) and the Ofqual application only permits 500 to 1000 word answers, so it won’t take long to submit”

This has mistakenly led some EpAOs to think that they can submit an application within a couple of weeks. However, when you read the guidance, the criteria and the conditions, you realise there is a lot more to it than just a few questions with 500 to 1000 word answers. You will need a large number of attachments to support / demonstrate / evidence your answers to the questions, and the process will take longer than you think.

“Ofqual say that we must meet their criteria at application but then talk about complying with their conditions. Which document(s) should we be using when formulating our application?”

The answer is to use both the criteria and conditions, and don’t forget the EPA level criteria and conditions! My recommendation would be to use the Guidance on the criteria to get started, and then use the conditions to check that you have covered its requirements in the documents you have gathered / produced to meet the criteria . I also find it helpful to reference the criteria number and condition number associated with the documents you have gathered / produced, as a method of cross checking and ensuring coverage.

“Why don’t the reference codes for the criteria and conditions match (e.g. conflict of interest is A5 in the criteria, but A4 in the conditions)?”

I am afraid my only answer to that is that they don’t match and you are just going to have to deal with it. Ofqual will not change it, so you’ll just have to get used to it.

“I can’t cover everything that Ofqual requires in the word limits enforced for responses”

It is not possible to demonstrate that you meet the criteria in the 500 to 1000 word limited answers in their own right, but it is possible within the word limit to bring your evidence together and reference it within your answer for Ofqual to read and understand.   In other words, you may have a 500 word answer with reference to multiple supporting documents, such as policies, processes and structure charts. I have seen EpAOs getting tied up in knots about how to write the answers, approaching it like it is a tender. My advice would be to leave the writing of the 500 to 1000 word answer until the end: use the guidance on the criteria, and conditions, to gather together all of the evidence; create an indexing system for the evidence, and then use the 500 to 1000 word answers to bring the documents together.

“How do we demonstrate the ‘development’ component of the Ofqual criteria and conditions when the assessment has already been designed by the trailblazer group and published in the assessment plan?”

Ofqual will need to see how you go about designing your end-point assessment tools, resources and specifications. For example, an assessment plan may state that there is a multiple-choice test, but it may not state the style of question, and it definitely will not state the questions. So, for example, the development work of an EpAO will be about evidencing to Ofqual the policies and procedures used to develop and test the questions banks, to ensure that they are fit for purpose, appropriate, valid, reliable, comparable, consistent, rigorous, robust, manageable and designed without bias.

“How do we demonstrate the ‘award’ component of the Ofqual criteria and conditions when EpAOs don’t issue certificates?”

As an EpAO you will be making assessment judgments, final grade recommendations, issuing results statements, carrying out moderation, standardisation, managing complaints and appeals, requesting certificates from the ESFA and gathering feedback. You will therefore need to have in place processes and policies for those ensuring that they meet the criteria and conditions associated with ‘award’.

“Why does Ofqual reject an application rather than go back to applicants with queries, it adds far too much time to the process?”

The standard Ofqual approach to application is to review (up to 12 weeks), followed by acceptance to go to panel or rejection (“not satisfied that [organisation name] meets the recognition criteria”). If rejected, the applicant then has to make a full re-application. Ofqual have more recently said that they may come back to the applicant requesting more information whilst undertaking the review, but if they find lots of gaps throughout the application review, they will reject. They have also said that if the review takes less than 12 weeks they will get back to applicants earlier.

“If we don’t have everything in place and every condition met prior to submission then Ofqual will reject us?”

Ofqual have said that they recognise that some EpAOs may not have everything in place to be able to meet the conditions at application. For example, they may not yet have yet designed the assessment tools for a standard that they are yet to apply to the ESFA register for. In those circumstances, I would recommend that you make it clear in your business and resource plans that you have identified what is yet to be developed and how you will achieve it so that you can demonstrate to Ofqual how you will go about meeting their criteria. I would strongly recommend talking to your Ofqual contact to get them to confirm exactly what they expect to be in place and what they will permit to be in the planning at the time of an application.

“Covid has severely impacted our current business and disrupted our forecasts, will Ofqual reject us because of the impact this has had on our finances”

I am afraid I can not answer this, please speak with Ofqual for clarity. They ran a finance webinar which may be of use, which can be accessed here.

I hope my article has help to demystify some areas, but don’t forget, if you are unsure, it is always best to seek a response from the ESFA, IfATE or Ofqual.

Jacqui Molkenthin, JEML Consulting

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