Tom Burton in Wembley

Friday the 13th of March 2020, a date I think that will stick in my memory. I, as so many colleagues from the sector, attended the ESFA’s annual EPAO conference in London. Coronavirus was starting to come over the horizon, we discussed the problem and issues the virus could cause and tossed around a few potential solutions at the lunch. That afternoon, I instructed all of NOCN’s EPA team to take their IT equipment home, to test the contingency and operate the EPAO on a 100% working from home basis.

The team as a whole never returned to the office

Everything in our world had changed; almost every single step and process in an apprentice’s journey was turned on its head. From the IAG, to enrolment, to off and on the job training and EPA. All changed in the blink of an eye.

We are now almost a year on and the pandemic is still causing havoc for apprentices, I think the question of “what about the apprentice” is still too often missed in the COVID response conversation, understandably the focus due to volume, is placed on GCSE and A-Level learners.

However, the well-published issues on functional skills exams, the decline in potential new opportunities, amendments and EPA flexibilities, closures of colleges, and of course the future pressing issue of “Skills Lag” caused by furlough and redundancy. All are having a compounding effect on the apprentice.

However, the effects of “Skills Lag” is one, which concerns me the most

Having worked in almost all of the parts of the “apprenticeship” system, the effect of the pandemic on the ability of apprentices is the most worrying, as we look at a post-vaccine future. Skills fade, lag, drop off, whatever you label it as, in my opinion, should be one of the top risks for all stakeholders in the sector.

The first lockdown saw almost a complete shutdown of “in-person” skills programmes. It was, in many parts treated as a one-off. With an immense effort undertaken by providers to re-engage, deliver online and keep the train on the tracks. Nevertheless, as the second and third lockdown deepened the engagement issues, the lack of practical skills development has started to bite.

“Skills Lag” could be explained as many things, but simply put the “lag effect” is for me, is the loss of high-quality skill development, in-person mentoring and support, a lag caused by a side-effect of trying to halt the pandemic.

This, of course, is exacerbated each time we have a new work at home order, or enforced college closure, a class or cohort “circuit breaker”, COVID self-isolation, COVID positive isolation, employer furloughs, teaching staff isolation, material shortages. This list can go on. Of course, it absolutely nobody’s fault, it is simply the situation we have and I have been amazed by the efforts taken by providers to keep the show on the road. These people deserve commending, providing a vital service and support to the future economy.

...but what about the apprentice?

What to do? For me it will be back to that question “but what about the apprentice?" The advent of End Point Assessment and the recent commitment by the Department for Education, Education Skills Funding Agency, The Institute for Apprenticeship and Technical Education to continuing where safe, the End Point Assessment process. Is a key assurance mechanism in the control of quality? “Of course, he would say that”, I can hear you say. He is the director of an EPAO!

However, that aside, having “Skills Lag” on your radar is of vital importance in maintaining a successful EPA process for your apprentices.

Therefore, here are a few top tips for addressing “Skills Lag” with your apprentices.

  • Presumption on skills, should at all cost be avoided.

Completed time on programmes is not simply a measure of competence. Pre-assessment, on-programme assessments, mini-gateways and “re-gatewaying” should all be a consideration to ensure apprentices are at the right level.

  • Knowledge, Skills and Behaviours reflection. Making sure that both the provider and employer evaluate and re-assess the competencies of the K,S,Bs after any breaks in learning, furlough or gap in skills delivery. Be honest in this process. EPA will be honest.
  • Check the validity of any submitted evidence which may be needed for the EPA. How long ago was it compiled, is it still a true reflection of the apprentice. Is the apprentice now producing better work than previously submitted? Don’t miss an opportunity to reach a higher grade. See the experiences gained in the pandemic as a positive.
  • Tracking and using “on the job” evidence. So much has been written and discussed about “off the job”. But 80% of the apprentices time is with the employer. Capturing this evidence is a hidden gem.
  • Timing and skill ability. Some EPAs still have practical requirements. One of the biggest effects of “Skills Lag” has been on an apprentice’s ability to work at speed and to a high tolerance level. Practice or mock scenarios, timed practical tasks, the pressure of timed delivery should all be a consideration, when bringing the apprentice back up to speed.
  • Difficult conversations with the apprentice and the employer on any effect of “Skills Lag” must take place. Everyone will be keen to achieve their apprenticeship. But an open and honest conversation must be had to address any concerns. The EPA process will uncover any of those deficiencies. Simply processing an apprentice through EPA because of time pressure, should be avoided.
  • Making sure those who are ready, can. The guidance by the DfE to continue with practical assessments and EPAs in February and March, should be grasped as an opportunity to achieve those who are ready. Campus closures to all other learners present a provider with an opportunity to complete those EPAs, which require practical workshops and spaces.
  • Speak with you EPAO if you have concerns on backlog/bottlenecks or have a need to address a specific concern. EPAOs are their to service you and your employer. Often we can find a solution.

Thomas Burton – Director of Apprenticeships NOCN

Thomas’ career began in Hospitality and Catering in 1997 and was the Senior Sous Chef at Doncaster Racecourse for six years, during this time he completed his teacher training at Doncaster College. Thomas continued in Hospitality and Catering and became the culinary project manager at the London 2012 Olympics, where he delivered part of the largest catering operation since World War Two.

Thomas has taught Hospitality and Catering at both Dearne Valley College and Rotherham College of Arts & Technology. Thomas spent three years as the Quality and Curriculum manager for an independent training provider, overseeing apprenticeship delivery in Management, Hair, Healthcare, and Hospitality.

Since 2017, Thomas has established the Apprenticeship End Point Assessment Organisation at NOCN Group, as well as delivering Apprenticeship projects in India on behalf of the UK Government. He is also the Governor of Apprenticeships and Further Education, for DN Colleges Group.

NOCN Group was established in 1987 as a grassroots education charity and has always been there for the benefit learner, NOCN Group has recently launched NOCN vLearn - an innovative, learning ecosystem that supports your organisation's unique needs and brings virtual on-demand learning to life!

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