Robust End-Point Assessment is the jewel in the crown of England’s apprenticeship reforms.
This November marks the sixth anniversary of the government’s major Richard Review of English apprenticeships.
Since 2012, the skills sector has undergone fundamental change. The old frameworks – based on competency-based qualifications – have been steadily replaced by new standards developed by “trailblazer” industry groups.
Newly qualified apprentices receive a certificate from the Institute for Apprenticeships (IFA), meaning that a government agency is now the sole certification body for apprenticeships.
Significant challenges remain about the 24% collapse in starts since the reforms kicked in.
The introduction of the levy has not (so far) unlocked a surge in the recruitment of 18-24-year-old apprentices; and some small businesses have shunned the requirement of 20% off the job training arguing it adds bureaucratic complexity.
Why Have Apprenticeship Starts Still Not Recovered?
These programme metrics – currently pointing in the wrong direction – are really important because following the last review, government promised a world leading apprenticeship model that would:
shift the power over designing and developing apprenticeship qualifications to employers in a far more direct and transparent way than at present, whilst giving Government a clearer role in defining what a good quality standard looks like.
The truth is that we don’t know exactly why English apprenticeships have gone into reverse since 2016; and there is contradictory (anecdotal) evidence about why large employers are not spending their levy.
In Scotland, where the old frameworks were kept in place, apprenticeship starts have carried on rising.
The levy is collected in Scotland, but it is centrally distributed via providers, meaning that firms can take on apprentices in the traditional manner.
All employers have to do is work with a college or training provider who will purchase the provision on their behalf.
Time to Take Stock
To an economist, the woes currently affecting England’s apprenticeship model would suggest causality is in fact the reforms themselves; and not broader changes affecting the UK’s labour market.
Because if the latter were the case we would expect to have observed, in devolved parts of Britain at least, a similar decline in apprenticeships.
The Institute for Apprenticeships would point to the fact that while absolute starts have been in decline, relative to their peak in 2015, starts on the new standards are ramping up significantly.
At a time when the English minister for skills, Anne Milton MP, is under pressure to get better results, some are arguing that perhaps it is time to take stock more strategically on whether the reforms are working.
With so much time elapsed since the Richard Review, how much longer should we allow before intervening in a more fundamental way?
Hold the line on radical changes
I take the view, as do many experts in the sector, that the government is right to hold the line on radical changes.
The last thing we should be doing right now is embarking on some major institutional or programmatic reforms. The sector needs greater stability.
For too long skills policy has been destroyed by impatient policymakers who look for structural quick-fixes, when the answer lies perhaps in fine tuning the system we’ve already got.
If you look at the most recent House of Commons Education Select Committee report on apprenticeships, with its 27 recommendations, they amount to relatively minor and technocratic tweaks of the existing system. They should all be implemented.
World-class Standards for All
We won’t really know if the new standards are genuinely world-class until at least a whole generational cohort has passed through them.
The levy may just need more financial re-tuning to properly incentivise employers to take on younger apprentices.
One obvious way, would be to adjust the funding bands for 18-24-year-old apprentices so that there is a much higher premium in some skills shortage sectors for taking them on.
In that regard, Brexit is an opportunity to break out of the ‘low skills equilibrium’ that has bedevilled the British economy for decades.
More Definition Needed Between Learning Systems
It is our foundation learning system – schools and FE colleges, that should ensure all young people are qualified up to level 3; and it is the skills delivery system – led by a myriad of public and private sector providers – that should focus instead on training individuals from level 4 and beyond.
A strategic shift of this nature could really help rocket boost the country’s poor productivity record, since we’d be tackling head on the current ‘deficit model’ of intervention deployed in our skills policy and funding arrangements.
For too long, the country has focussed on picking up the pieces of an education system at 16 that fails nearly half the school leaving population every year.
The country has also focussed too much on the quantity of skills supply, instead of the quality.
End point Assessment Must be Safeguarded
End-point assessment is the one reform that really must be safeguarded and built on.
At the heart of England’s new model is the requirement of objective testing of the competence and proficiency of apprentices when they are ready.
Indeed, robust end-point assessment is the jewel in the crown of the country’s new apprenticeship system. It means that training providers can no longer mark their own homework.
Like a driving school novice submitted for testing at the driver examination centre, these two functions in apprenticeships are now independent of one another.
Over time, it should mean that all apprentices graduate with far superior skills to those that went before them – just as the overall standard of driving in the UK has improved over time.
The Success of End Point Assessment
For EPA to be a success, it will not only have to remain a robustly independent part of the new apprenticeship delivery model, but it will have to grow its own capacity too.
That means attracting experienced people from industry to train as assessors. To help support this challenge, the Federation of Awarding Bodies has joined forces with the Federation of Industry Sector Skills and Standards (which includes the Assessors Guild) to organise the first national conference for the EPAO/EQA community next spring.
This forms part of a growing recognition that those engaged in our independent assessment and quality assurance processes need to be seen as a professional community of practice in their own right.
Tom Bewick, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB)
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