David Lockhart-Hawkins, Senior Associate at SDN

Getting initial assessment right for apprenticeship standards is vital - not just for compliance, but also in underpinning a high-quality individual learning programme.

That’s why the ESFA and Ofsted are looking at it closely.

The introduction of apprenticeship standards, and their broad range of content, means the comfort blanket of the unit-based frameworks has been removed. This places a far greater emphasis on the initial assessment, not just for compliance and mapping prior learning, but also providing you with the detail you need to develop a curriculum tailored to each apprentice’s individual development needs.

So, what’s changed in initial assessment between frameworks and standards?

In the apprenticeship frameworks era when a fixed price applied, initial assessment of vocational skills was often a ‘light touch’ process.

It involved working through a checklist of the units to identify if an individual would meet the requirements of each unit:

  • through their job activity
  • through previous knowledge and experience
  • with some training

By verifying previous qualifications, maths and English ability, and residential status you had the evidence you needed to prove to the ESFA your apprentices were eligible and suitable for funding. Recognition of prior learning, when applied, was limited to accredited units or qualifications not needed by proxy, rather than whether a unit could be immediately assessed.

For apprenticeship standards, the ESFA’s expectations are far more rigorous. Of course, you must still check residency status, maths and English ability and prior qualifications, but you also need to carry out an assessment of the applicants’ current knowledge, skills and behaviours (KSBs) in relation to the requirements of the apprenticeship standard.

Essentially, the ESFA doesn’t want public funding going towards training for KSBs that apprentices already possess. This means it is up to providers to evidence that current KSBs have been teased out at initial assessment, and that prior experience is reflected in the price and duration of the apprenticeship programme to avoid claw-back.

What does this mean in practice? A move from compliance to quality?

There’s no short cut to getting initial assessment right. Many providers are finding that their initial assessment process needs to be reconfigured, to succeed longer term. But it’s important to focus on the opportunity it brings - initial assessment is a key tool to drive your apprenticeship curriculum and demonstrates to Ofsted your focus on providing a tailored programme of learning for each apprentice. It also allows you to show greater value to employers and deliver a more efficient and cost-effective product at higher quality.

Analysing current KSBs for different groups and individuals at initial assessment, means you can create bespoke training plans that focuses on developing the apprentices learning, where they need it most. This stops apprentices from simply going over old ground, helps to identify areas for stretch and challenge and, ultimately, motivates your learners to stay on programme and succeed. That in turn makes for a more satisfied employer. It’s a quality-first approach to initial assessment.

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Three things to consider before configuring your initial assessment process

As you start to adapt your initial assessment process so that it is appropriate to standards – there are three things you might want to consider along the way…

1. Consider how best to judge an applicants’ depth of KSBs at initial assessment

With apprenticeship standards written in broad terms that rarely define what the level of expected learning would be, it’s difficult to judge, then evidence, the relevance of an applicant’s current KSBs at the start of a programme. Make sure you talk to End-Point Assessment Organisations about their expectations of what indicates a pass (i.e. competency) and decode the assessment plan, so you have a clear understanding of what a competent apprentice looks like for that occupation / standard.

The assessment plan often gives you more specific learning outcomes apprentices need to pass end-point assessment. This will help you decide how relevant an applicant’s prior experience is i.e. do they already have the knowledge needed to meet the standard or do they need a far deeper understanding?

2. Consider your initial assessment methods

For apprenticeship frameworks, there was a tendency to rely on self-assessment forms alone to ascertain the previous KSBs of apprentices at initial assessment. In standards, self-assessment forms may be a good first step, but are unlikely to give you the detail you need to stay compliant and design a thorough individual learning plan.

For example, the Team Leader / Supervisor apprenticeship standard requires the apprentice to “Understand different leadership styles and the benefits of coaching to support people and improve performance” and may indicate in a self-assessment form that they have an understanding of ‘different leadership styles’. Ask yourself the question: “Does the applicant understand what the different leadership styles are at a level that allows them to choose which one works in the right setting and be deemed competent for their job role, and would they be able to sufficiently evidence this at end-point assessment?” The environment the individual applicant is in will also matter. If the course is aspirational, are they more likely to give a less accurate higher scoring answer because they think they need to in order to get on the course?

The information they provide in their self-assessment is unlikely to give you the degree of insight you need, so you would need (for example) to go on to conduct a short interview or profession discussion to probe their true knowledge and decide how to adjust your programme to meet their needs.

3. Consider who will carry out the initial assessment

In the past, employer engagement or business development staff have often been tasked with carrying out initial assessment as part of the apprenticeship setup process, but in the new world of standards they are unlikely to be able to validate the impact of prior experience against a broad apprenticeship standard without themselves understanding the required learning outcomes within the standard.

Subject specialists can ask more knowing questions to ascertain the level of an applicant’s understanding and compare that to what ‘good’ looks like for your apprenticeship programme. This allows you to design and deliver a more individual learning experience but also a more efficient and effective curriculum.

David Lockhart-Hawkins, Senior Associate at SDN

5-part webinar series, with input from Ofsted’s Chris Jones – Getting initial assessment right for apprenticeship standards

Supported by FE News, SDN is running a 5-part Initial Assessment webinar series in September, with input from Ofsted’s apprenticeship lead, Chris Jones.

We’ll take a deep dive into initial assessment, giving you tools and methods to develop a compliant and curriculum-driven initial assessment process for standards.

We’ll cover:

  1. Why initial assessment is so important for apprenticeship standards
  2. Initial assessment and compliance including how it can affect training price
  3. The component parts of initial assessment
  4. Methods of assessment and interview techniques
  5. Initial assessment and curriculum planning (inc. applying recognition of prior learning)

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