Today we have seen the inaugural External Quality Assurance Report issued by The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) as we reach the first full year of EQA Providers carrying out audits and monitoring of End Point Assessment Organisations (EPAOs).
I have read the report with interest today and particularly focused on the ‘headline findings’ which have left me thinking how some of the concerns raised could have easily been avoided had the right checks and balances been in place from the outset.
The first headline finding is EPAOs that have developed real occupational expertise bring huge added value to the assessment; whereas those that have not can undermine the quality of assessment. I recently wrote a piece for FE News titled ‘My reflections and the future of End Point Assessment’ and I looked back to the expectation of EPAOs as set out but The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and IfATE. I referenced a video by Janet Ryland from ESFA speaking with FE News in March 2017 where she was clear it was critical that End Point Assessment Organisations (EPAO) had proven assessment expertise coupled with assessors who had up to date occupational understanding. The message was very clear – you shouldn’t go into becoming an EPAO lightly. Janet Ryland went on to say “A lot of preparation is required, along with the infrastructure and assessment expertise. You have to be focused on Quality to meet the bar – this is fundamental to meeting the criteria”
It is clear to me that the application process needs to be strengthened considerably to ensure that occupational competence coupled with real assessment understanding and expertise is evidenced for these core competencies.
The next headline area is Where EPAOs have developed inadequate assessment materials this is generally picked up through the readiness checks and evaluation of materials by EQA providers. But less good end-point assessment practices are often only exposed once assessment delivery is under way. In my mind this is one that is easily resolved with more up front interaction by EQA Providers. I have always recommended that in addition to the assessment plan a specification that clearly sets out the how the EPAO has interpreted the standard and plans to then execute this into assessment materials should be mandatory. This should be supported and coupled with additional supporting materials for assessors and providers to ensure that assessment outcomes are fairly applied. These materials should be reviewed ahead of first delivery by the EQA Provider which will drive up quality as well ensuring consistency across all EPAOs.
Version control of assessment plans is not always clearly understood or communicated. This is an area that is clearly on a lot of EPAOs minds. The report goes on to say ‘Some lack of clarity around processes where new versions of assessment plans are approved has created a grey area in which some EPAOs have inadvertently or deliberately used older, less relevant assessment plans’. I feel this is a slightly unfair statement. At a recent EPAO Group that I Chair this was raised as a significant concern by all around the virtual table. Any version control is out of hand with no clear process in place to communicate changes to EPAOs or Providers. We also have a lack of guidance around when new versions are applied which is left many EPAOs having to seek answers to some fundamental questions that should be clearer. A big plea here – lets get a process and guidance in place so these controls can be applied ASAP.
Next up in the headline areas Some older end-point assessment plans could provide greater detail and clarity to allow EPAOs to develop high quality, authentic and consistent end-point assessment. Assessment plans are much improved from standards that were developed early on but we still do have reluctance from some Trailblazer Groups to engage EPAOs/assessment expertise in discussions when standards are being developed. This early engagement would provide advice on most appropriate and efficient assessment methods as well as ensuring that an EPAO is committed to working with the Group to develop the assessments
Approaches to grading is another area determined in the headlines Grading in the specific context of an assessment of occupational competence defined by employers, is not well understood by all trailblazers and EPAOs and needs to improve. We have many different approaches that have been determined which is leading to much confusion for those delivering apprenticeship and indeed working toward them. The simple answer here is: 'lets have a consistent approach to grading across all Apprenticeship standards'.
Most EQA providers report that reasonable adjustments work well. However, reasonable adjustments are not uniformly understood by EPAOs and this needs to improve. This was a concern that Innovate Awarding raised very early on into delivery as we were hearing from some Providers and Employers that reasonable adjustment policies were not in place or being applied for apprentices with Additional Learner needs (ALN). Let's not underestimate how concerning this is with a third of apprentices being identified as having ALN. Innovate worked in partnership with CogniAssist to establish a Reasonable Adjustments framework considering a number of disabilities and assessment types. This was made available to IfATE to support other EPAOs so we could ensure that every apprentice requiring an adjustment was catered for. A Reasonable adjustment policy and framework needs to be an area that is audited and monitored by an EQA Organisation in the future. It is not acceptable to not provide all we can to ensure each Apprentice has the best chance of success.
Nearly there now but a lot of headline areas to cover The degree to which apprentices have been prepared for end-point assessment and know what to expect is too variable. This is a tricky balance to strike as many apprentices have had a bad experience of Exams in the past so many Providers and Employers do work hard to take away that fear factor. This will only change if we really ensure everyone fully understands End Point Assessment is a series of component Exams, with an Examiner under Exam conditions. We do need to do more to make sure this is fully understood. The word ‘assessed’ doesn’t sound as serious which I feel is partly why the emphasis is not put on the EPA part of the apprenticeship.
And finally The best EPAOs see themselves as learning organisations and have strong internal quality assurance processes and practices. To me this should be much further up the list as this should be the day job for any End Point Assessment Organisation. It is our role to develop and deliver fair, consistent and reliable assessment judgements. This requires the staff, systems, processes and a number of continual quality checks and feedback loops to provide this reassurance.
Nothing in the report is a surprise and the headlines mirror concerns that ‘good EPAOs’ have been flagging for a while. So lets rise to the challenge as EPAOs and EQA Organisations and get behind the recommendations in this report to raise the quality and profile of End Point Assessment.
Charlotte Bosworth, Managing Director Innovate Awarding and Chair of the Federation of Awarding Bodies EPAO Group