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What do End-point Assessment Organisations (EpAOs) value most from their External Quality Assurance (EQA) providers?

Jacqui Molkenthin

In June 2020 I carried out a short survey of EpAOs, asking what they would find most valuable from an EQA provider. The survey was completed by 50 EpAOs (17% of all EpAOs), and the overwhelming response was advice, support, and the sharing best practice, alongside, responsiveness, sector expertise and adherence to the IfATE EQA framework. Read on to find out more.

What is the role of the EQA provider with the EpAO?

The current IfATE EQA framework sets out how apprenticeship end-point assessments must be externally quality assured, and it details the role of the EQA provider with the EpAO as follows:

  • READINESS – undertake a readiness evaluation when an EPAO has said they will be ready to deliver assessments for each standard
  • MONITORING – deliver desk-based reviews, and deploy reviewers to observe EPA delivery.
  • REPORTING – grading and risk rating, with feedback to the EpAO and the IfATE’s Quality Assurance Committee, and an annual summary report on each EpAO on each apprenticeship standard.
  • IMPROVEMENT – work with EpAOs to resolve issues and ensure that EpAOs deliver any recommendation made by EQA monitoring. EQA providers will work with EpAOs, other EQA providers and the IfATE to support consistency and continuous improvement
  • ACTION – monitor the quality of apprenticeship assessment delivery, rectify issues and inform or escalate to the IfATE

These headline roles remain the same in the draft simplified EQA framework, but there are some significant differences within the detail of the roles, for example, in the MONITORING stage, the observation-based monitoring activities would involve input from professional and employer‐led bodies. There is also an additional EQA provider role with EpAO at the REGISTRATION stage, whereby the EpAO must be recognised by Ofqual under their conditions of recognition (the REGISTRATION stage exists in the current EQA framework, but the EQA provider is not involved).

What do EpAOs find most valuable from an EQA provider?

What was clear from the June 2020 survey results, was that EpAOs valued a wide range of EQA provider approaches, but advice, support and the sharing of best practice was by far the most important:

  • EpAOs most valued EQA support and advice (84% of respondents), one respondent commented “we need support not a stick”.
  • The next most valued EQA roles were to share best practice (76%) and to act as a critical friend, reviewing and making recommendations (73%). One respondent commented “EpAO forums are very helpful, perhaps forums focused on suites of standards or types of assessment methods would be a good way to carve them up”, another respondent commented “IQAs as individuals need the endorsement from an external body, that they are doing the right thing”.
  • 47% of respondents indicated that they would value the EQA provider taking a risk-based approach (EQA provider only gets involved if there is an issue). Ofqual is an example of an EQA provider following a risk-based approach to EQA as detailed in their annual report. One respondent commented that “Oversight in a regulatory framework can only add value to this process. Of course, it will bring with it some initial problems and confusion, but that should not detract from the overall ‘end goal’”
  • 41% of respondents indicated that they would value the EQA provider issuing reports per standard covering the EQA across all EpAOs for that standard. One respondent commented “Ensure standard practice across all EPAO’s”
  • 22% of respondents said they would value the EQA provider grading / publishing reports on their organisation. One respondent referred to “reassurance to employers and provider about the quality of provision offered by the EpAO”
  • 23% of respondents also detailed other activities that they would find most valuable from an EQA provider:
    • Timeliness “The EQA provider has to be able to respond appropriately and in a very timely fashion to questions arising concerning the EPA process”, and “a speedy response, based on a knowledge of the peculiarities of the sector is, in our experience, essential to finding satisfactory resolution”
    • Sector expertise – “a good EQA looks at how process and policy are applied in the real world”, “A focus on policy and outputs can miss how the assessment is enacted and how it translates to the key stakeholders, the apprentice, employers and providers”, and “a knowledge of the peculiarities of the sector is, in our experience, essential”.
    • Adherence – “EQA providers must adhere to the EQA framework

So how do these views correlate back to the EQA framework?

  • Advice and Support: There are numerous references to advice and support throughout the existing and proposed simplified EQA framework. In the readiness section it refers to a supportive readiness process for with EpAOs being provided with advice and support as they need it. In the monitoring section it refers to support and shared learning. In the reporting section it refers to EQA providers reporting on good practice and supporting continuous improvements, alongside the provision of clear reports with examples of good practice, recommendations and action points. In the improvement section it refers to the EQA provider responding to adhoc queries and request for guidance from EpAOs, using forums to discuss and share good practice, and working with the EpAO to support continuous improvement.
  • Best Practice / Critical friend: Both the current and the proposed simplified EQA framework detail the issuing of reports to EpAOs including examples of good practice, recommendations and action points, and the provision of feedback to the EPAO. It also refers to EQA providers making recommendations for improvements to EPAOs during the course of regular monitoring, and the use of forums to discuss and share good practice in assessment.
  • Risk based approach: The EQA framework uses risk (determined during the readiness check and at subsequent reviews) in its evaluation approach to monitoring desk-based reviews, and uses risk to determine the frequency of reviews, and the aspects EQA reviews. It then describes how action determined and taken by the IfATE will depend on the nature of the incident and severity of the risk posed. There is also a minimum of one EQA review in relation to each EPAO per standard each year. The proposed new EQA framework has a much greater focus on risk, with references throughout the document. In the proposed new framework, actions are no longer from the IfATE, they are regulatory actions determined by Ofqual/OfS.   It also reduces the EQA review from minimum of one EQA review in relation to each EPAO per standard per year, to every 3 years.
  • Reports and grading: In the EQA framework (reporting section) the EQA provider role is to produce a report for each apprenticeship standard and each EpAO assessing that standard, submitting that report to the EpAO and the IfATE. The EQA cannot publish the report, but it does say the IfATE plans to publish reports or elements of them at some point in the future.

Some final thoughts from me

The current and proposed new EQA framework embeds advice, support, feedback and guidance, which is good news in relation to the survey results, and for EQA, because effective support complements understanding and compliance, and also provides a managed approach to risk. I think it is worth noting at this point that in both my February and June 2020 EpAO surveys, I received some really positive comments from EpAOs about the advice and support provided by some EQA providers, in particular Open Awards and NSAR.

The proposed new EQA framework sees a move towards a more risk-based approach to EQA. Risk based approaches can sometimes favour data analysis / intelligence over observation, but the proposed new EQA framework retains observations, so the key to its success will be to make sure the EQA framework is adhered to by all EQA providers (the current Ofqual approach to EQA means that they do not carry out observations, as detailed in annex A of their annual report).

EpAOs have said that they value the sharing of best practice and reports (per standard and for their organisation), but there appears to be a distinct lack of reports / good practice coming from the IfATE, and EQA providers are not permitted publish their reports. To date, the only published reports regarding best practice have been from Ofqual who EQA 14% of standards, as can be seen in their technical evaluation of EPA materials.

Purely from a personal perspective, I would like to see an Open Awards / NSAR approach to advice, guidance and support, full adherence to the IfATE EQA framework, and a clear transparent and open strategy for publishing reports on what works and does not work in end-point assessment, so that all EpAOs can respond and continue to develop / maintain high quality assessment tools and materials, and so that the customers (employers, apprentices and providers) have confidence in the EpAO market place.  

Another article will be following soon on the June 2020 survey results regarding EpAOs and Ofqual Recognition.

Jacqui Molkenthin, JEML Consulting

Copyright © 2020 JEML Consulting 

If you would like to know more about end-point assessment, I have authored a range of articles that you may find helpful:

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