Last week the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) announced a very significant change in of the rules concerning the use of qualifications in apprenticeship standards.

These changes should be welcomed warmly by the education, skills and awarding sectors.

The value of qualifications to learners taking new Apprenticeship standards up to now has largely been ignored in the debate. This announcement isn’t a panacea by any stretch of the imagination. Last week’s announcement isn’t ‘game won’, there is much devil in the detail and it won’t be plain sailing.  But it is a proportionate and sensible change in apprenticeship policy.

Qualifications are valued by both employers and learners on apprenticeship programmes.  

The NUS, on behalf of apprentices, called for the inclusion of clear, appropriate and nationally recognised qualifications within apprenticeships. They are still the currency by which an employer measures achievement when recruiting for a job. The IfA has demonstrated it is listening, and is listening well.

 It needs to balance government policy, employer expectations and the education, skills and awarding sectors advice and concerns in developing its policy around the Apprenticeship agenda.   

Since Sir Gerry Berragan has taken up the reins at IfA, it is clear that they are beginning to look and act like an organisation that we can do business with.  

I believe we are all about one thing, public confidence in apprenticeships.   Many of us in the sector expressed our concerns about the apprenticeship reforms as they were developed without the direct input from awarding and assessment experts in the early days, and with the apparent blanket ban on qualifications within standards (apart from those that were considered a ‘licence to practice’)

With the IfA now harnessing the expertise of employers, providers and Awarding Organisations we can ensure apprenticeship standards achieve the public confidence they rightly deserve.  

I took up the role of Chair at the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) sixteen months ago, in my maiden speech to the FAB conference, I made a commitment to the membership that promoting the value of vocational qualifications and assessments to learners was my top priority. 

So last week’s announcement was a step in the right direction in the apprenticeship reform journey. But it is only a start; there is still much work to do in terms of getting apprenticeship reform right.

The next step on our Apprenticeship list at FAB is end point assessment and the External Quality Assurance (EQA) of end point assessment.

Much of the comment in last week’s announcement by IfA was about “where qualifications have a role to play in adding value to End-Point Assessment and not doing damage to End Point Assessment”.

We at FAB see that as a welcome new principle in the role of qualifications in apprenticeships, but we will continue to debate with, and lobby, policy-makers, on the high value and esteem that employers and apprentice s place on qualifications within the Apprenticeship system.

However, it does mean that the assessment methodology and regulation around End-Point Assessment must be as robust as it is around qualifications.

Having upwards of thirty External Quality Assurance Bodies (EQAs) regulating End Point Assessment isn’t sustainable and does nothing in FAB’s view, to assure public confidence in the Apprenticeship programme, because there is no common way to regulate these new regulators of End Point Assessment.

Our policy position is that there should be a single framework for all EQAs to comply with.

I also have a concern about the process of admitting EPAOs to the register. I have never really understood why the Education and Skills Funding Agency were given this very demanding role. They have no experience in regulation, but to keep Ofqual out of the frame for this area of the Apprenticeship system is folly in FABs view.

I was horrified recently talking to an official when they expressed the view that they expected there to be over 250 EPAOs in the system when the Apprenticeship reforms are fully in place.

That’s 90 more organisations that Ofqual regulated for all qualifications in England including GCSE’s, A Levels and all vocational qualifications.

30 EQAs (who are not working to any common principles) for 250 EPAOs - is that really a sensible, good use of public money, and is it a system that will give public confidence?

This debate around the number of EPAOs is also in the context of the T-level debate where government seems wedded to a single Awarding organisation per route. 250 for EPAOs doesn’t seem sensible, neither does a single one for each T-level route.

Perhaps the balance in the model used by Ofqual is a sensible starting point for discussion?

I am a ‘glass half full’ person and with the moves of IFA in the last week or so, I am confident that they will come to a sensible conclusion on the End Point Assessment debate, which to be fair has been going on rather a long time now!

Paul Eeles is the Chair of the Federation of Awarding Bodies and the Chief Executive of the Skills & Education Group.

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