From education to employment

External Quality Assurance…will it really help to raise quality?

Tony Allen, CEO AAS Ltd.

High quality will mean that those undertaking apprenticeships have confidence that the skills they are learning will help them succeed, progress and thrive.  And it means that employers will see the bottom line return of a workforce with the right knowledge, skills and behaviours.

(IfA website – High quality Apprenticeships)

The Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) remit seems determined to ensure that the apprenticeship programme that we have in this country is of a high quality, at least that is one of the over-riding themes from their website.

The above quotation (even forgiving the beginning of a sentence with ‘And’!) makes it clear just what they mean by the terms ‘High Quality’.

One of the key levers that they will use in the drive for quality is external quality assurance (EQA), the part of the programme that looks at the effectiveness of the end-point assessment process.

EQA is designed to monitor EPA across all apprenticeship standards. EQA sets out to ensure that End Point Assessment Organisations (EPAOs) all work to a high standard and that an apprentice will get the same standard of result from their EPA regardless of the EPAO.

EQA is also set to ensure that the apprenticeship standard and end-point assessment plan are fit-for-purpose and actually delivering the outcomes that are required.

This is all good stuff, and it is early days given the number of apprentices who have gone through EPA, but is it really going to work? Here are a few reasons why I am very concerned about the model that we have created for EQA

Firstly, as with EPA, there are multiple organisations involved, and no single organisation has responsibility for conducting EQA.

According to the guidance, employers can decide from one of four groupings as to whom they would like to conduct the EQA process, namely:

  1. An employer led model
  2. A professional body
  3. Ofqual
  4. The Institute for Apprenticeships

The IfA have to approve new employer led or professional bodies who wish to take on the EQA role. So far, the position is that 44 EQA organisations have been proposed, but only 7 have been formally approved by the IfA, including Ofqual and the IfA itself.

Now this is hardly ‘Faster and Better’ and is another example along with the whole approvals regime, of where the IfA continue to fail.

However, the multiple EQA model raises two far more important issues for me. Firstly, why do we need more than one organisation carrying out EQA, and secondly, exactly what is the role of the IfA, strategic body or hands-on deliverer?

The idea that multiple organisations monitoring the quality of the EPA process will lead to consistently higher level of quality is a nonsense. EPA organisations are telling me that they are already coming up against vastly different approached to EQA, with some ‘light touch’ and others taking as long as the EPA process itself.

Inconsistency in trying to monitor quality is not a mechanism to measure, let alone raise the quality of apprenticeships. It is like having different incarnations of Ofsted!

Why do we not have a single organisation monitoring the quality of EPA? What is that I hear you cry, this is employer driven process! They should be allowed to decide! Well I disagree!

For something as fundamental as this we should have a single body, overseeing the quality of EPA. Why not give the role to Ofsted or the Office for Students?

Leading on from this is the role of the IfA. Once again, as with EPA we see it involving itself in delivery. Now I know that for EQA this has been contracted out to a third-party, but that still means that the IfA is responsible for the delivery of that contract.

I have always felt that the IfA should be the strategic body that oversees the whole apprenticeship system, and that it should approve, award and oversee those who do the work, not potentially conflict itself by getting involved in delivery.

Who does a disgruntled EPAO go to if they are happy with the IfA EQA service?

Why is the IfA wearing two hats? I suspect that in the early days it was so concerned at the lack of EPA / EQA organisations coming forward that it felt it had to get involved itself. A huge mistake in my view. I am convinced that at some point in the future it will be forced to get itself out of a conflict of interest muddle.

My disappointment with the IfA in not acting strategically has been compounded recently with the issue of People 1st.

When this Retail and Hospitality EQA organisation announced that it was bankrupt, and had ‘transferred’ its EQA responsibilities to an organisation with no relevant experience in those sectors, what did the IfA do? Nothing, it allowed it to happen.

Let’s go back to the beginning and think about an employer driven process.

At the beginning would Retail and Hospitality employers have chosen an EQA organisation with no experience in their sectors? No! So why is it acceptable now?

I worry that as the demand for EQA grows, we will see it synonymous with an inconsistent approach to quality, and a lack of clarity and oversight by the IfA.

Let’s hope that I am wrong.

Tony Allen, CEO, AAS Ltd.

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