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Future of Apprenticeships: The biggest change has been in the world of external quality assurance of end-point assessment

Jacqui Molkenthin, JEML Consulting
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#FoA2020 – My end-point assessment reflections following the Future of Apprenticeships Conference 

On 5th November I took part in, but mostly listened to, the fantastic insights, thoughts, views and ideas from providers, employers, apprentices and policy makers at the national Future of Apprenticeships Conference.

I have to say, that I was absolutely inspired by the apprentice panel session at the conference, such honest helpful insights that we all should listen to, and proof of just how great apprenticeships and apprentices are.

The conference also made me stop and think and take a look back at the past year of end-point assessment, and an article I wrote exactly one year ago on my thoughts and possible soluitions on the “the challenges of end-point assessment”.

Many of the points I raised in my article are still relevant now, albeit in a changed context, and were discussed at the conference, so I thought I’d share them as a basis to see where we are now, and how far we’ve come.

Where we are now, and how far we’ve come… 

The biggest change has been in the world of external quality assurance of end-point assessment. On the way out are the multiple EQA providers, to be replaced with Ofqual, and the OfS for integrated degree standards.

Thankfully, this has removed my concerns from last year about standards that did not have an EQA provider, and the varying approach to EQA.

However, it brings with it new challenges, which will be interesting to watch over the next year:

1. Timescales allocated for the transition

There are over 500 non-integrated degree standards, being assessed by approximately 250 EpAOs, that will now fall within scope of Ofqual. All EpAOs assessing these standards will need to be approved under Ofqual Conditions of Recognition. The transition is in 2 phases, with standards currently EQAd by the IfATE to transition by July 2021 and standards EQA’d by other EQA providers to transition by July 2022.

The IfATE website states “Once the standard transfers to Ofqual you will no longer be able to deliver that EPA and will be removed from the RoEPAO for those standards. This means that employers will no longer be able to select you as the EPAO for that standard

I personally have concerns about the realism of the timescales allocated for the transition, given that the timeline for organisations newly applying for Ofqual recognition can take a year, and given that currently only 33 EpAOs are approved by Ofqual, but I hope that they take a pragmatic approach to the timeframe, recognising where EpAOs may be in the application process but not yet approved at the time of the deadline.

We must also not lose sight of the need to retain employer choice and competitive market place. The good news is that the vast majority of EpAOs have begun their Ofqual preparation.

2. Clarity on how EQA will operate

In relation to the EQA of EPA for integrated degree standards, I have been unable to find anything about this on either the OfS or QAA website, which is a concern to me because EpAOs need to be clear on how EQA will operate, although the IfATE EQA framework is a good starting point.

There are also apprentices completing, so it would be helpful to know how the quality assurance is operating to give assurance to employers, providers and apprentices of the quality.

Volume of errors in assessments plans

In my article last year, I talked about my concerns about the volume of errors in assessments plans, and this was also discussed at the conference yesterday, in fact Terry Fennell on the EPA stage said “early produced assessment plans expected EPAOs to turn water in to wine”.

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Things have come on leaps and bounds in the past year, but there remain errors in some assessment plans.   To deliver the best and highest quality end-point assessment, we must have the best and highest quality assessment plans published by the IfATE.

I think that the involvement of Ofqual will help with this as Ofqual currently carry out technical scrutiny of assessment plans to ensure that they support the development of sufficiently valid end-point assessments, a role I assume they will continue as they take over the EQA of a greater number of standards.

Charlotte Bosworth also made an excellent point on the EPA stage that earlier engagement is needed with assessment experts to identify efficient and fit for purpose assessment methods.

Which version of assessment plans to use and when

Another discussion topic related to reviews and changes to assessment plans. In my article last year, I raised concerns about the lack of consistency/information about when they should be implemented and how it should be communicated.

We had an almost identical conversation at the conference about which version of assessment plans to use and when. I suggested that the ESFA / IfATE agree to a universal approach through the conditions or rules, for example, if an assessment plan is changed, does it apply to new starts, those on-programme pre-gateway, and so on?

All on the EPA stage agreed that there needs to be clear and consistent communication across all parties. I would also like to point out that that we must not forget that changes to assessment plans have resource implications for EpAOs as they have to adapt assessment methodologies, tools and guides, so it needs to be a reasoned pragmatic approach that takes account of employer and apprentice needs, as well as EpAO capabilities.

Focus should be on coverage and quality

It was certainly interesting to hear the debate on the EPA stage about whether panel members felt that there were too many EpAOs. The consent appeared to be that it was not about the volume of EpAOs it was about quality.

I agree with this sentiment, and I think it is important to remember that there may be 306 EpAOs, but there are 595 standards, 205 of which have just one EpAO (73% have less than 5 EpAOs), and 98 standards with no EpAO. I therefore believe that the focus should be on coverage and quality rather than volumes of EpAOs.

Bringing consistency to EQA

Another area from both my article and the EPA stage was about potential quality ratings for EpAOs, along the lines of Ofsted grades for providers. Sadly, I did not catch the response from the IfATE, but I do think that, now we are bringing consistency to EQA, there is the opportunity to look at a way of providing information to employers to help them make an informed decision on the choice of their end-point assessment provider.

Other discussions on the EPA stage included the involvement of universities as EpAOs, the funding, the value of end-point assessment, and the instilling of public confidence. So, it would be well worth listening back to the conference recording for some unique insights.

End-point assessment readiness

On a final note from me, the apprentices picked up on an important point in relation to end-point assessment and that is readiness. Employers, providers and EpAOs must work together to ensure that the apprentice is prepared for end-point assessment.

I wrote an article with some hints on tips on how EpAOs can support awareness of, and preparation for EPA in September, which you may find helpful.

With thanks to Tom Bewick and Skills World Live productions for hosting such a great day!

Jacqui Molkenthin, JEML Consulting

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