Peter Marples, Group Chief Operating Officer, 3aaa Apprenticeships

I woke up this morning, full of the joys of spring. The sun shining, just back from our 8th levy conference at Wembley stadium and although a bit tired (old age creeping on), I was ready for a new day in the office. Car started, Apple Car Play on and Sam Smith at volume 35 pumping out ‘One Day at A Time’.

I played it twice, it is such a good song but it made me think about what is occupying far too much of my time at the moment – that is the impending disaster of EPA.

The IFA have come in for a lot of criticism recently – probably some of it justified but much of it because probably they are an easy target to aim it at. They want to get quicker and more commercial – well a good starting point may be to have some representation on the board from organisations and individuals who actually have to deliver what is being asked.

The two latest appointments, whilst I am sure they have many skills have left me bewildered about what they will bring to make the EPA process ‘fit for purpose’ and how they will be able to support a system that will be consuming not far short of £100m of public money in the not too distant future.

BUT, for me, my concern is not about the IFA, it is about the EPAO’s themselves. We have great working relationships with many and we hope they will endure for many years to come.

However, I sense a mood of impending disaster on the horizon which as a provider who will be spending not far short of £2m this year on EPA, I demand some assurances and comfort that all will be well.

We cannot plan ‘one day at a time’, we have to invest as a business. I simply don’t see it with EPA – many are quick ‘to bank the cash’, but too few if any are truly investing in what this means. The impact is going to be felt by the learners and the employers and just don’t see anyone listening.

So, what are the issues:

  • There is going to be an explosion of end test assessment requiring to be done – for us alone that’s 4,000 in the next 12 months – ignore us, think that’s 12,000 hours as a minimum of a line manager sitting through the process – not far short of 9 full time members of staff! – do we really think this is sustainable as we multiply this by a factor of 10 or even 20
  • There is simply not enough resource within the EPAO’s to undertake the end tests – and I don’t see a strategy of solving it unless of course they start to take resource from the providers themselves! – it is difficult enough to recruit to deliver some of these standards so don’t think you can take our staff because the relationship will become very fraught, very quickly!
  • ‘It is being made up as they go along’ – I think the ESFA and IFA think EPA is ready when standards are released, it is just not the case – we have learners lining up for end test and the EPAO’s are still not ready! – they have taken the cash but simply have not invested. The analogy I would use is that when you design a new car, before you sell it – you make sure it can move forward and hopefully brake, is fit for purpose and comfortable – EPA is none of these- WHY – because there has been little investment, WHY – because may EPAO’s themselves have not seen it as a long term strategic opportunity, more of an easy solution to grow.

The impact whilst on the providers, (we are used to taking the flack), is going to be felt by the employers and most importantly the learners.  

Only in the last few days, I have been involved in discussions where learners will be prevented from progressing to the next level because the EPA needs not far short of 12 weeks to complete the EPA process – simply ridiculous, the analogy used being that we need the time, much like marking GCSE’s.

SO stop the moaning Marples and find some solutions you say:

  • We need an urgent group formed from providers, EPAO’s and chaired by the IFA to review what is wrong with the system and how we correct it, maintaining a system that is robust and fit for purpose
  • EPA’s need to ‘listen’ rather than dictate and get out a bit more and talk to employers who are on the receiving end of all of this! – they have been quick to form their sales teams, they should think a bit more about how the product delivers what is ‘written on the tin’
  • We need some realism in the system – there is simply not enough resource to do the EPA and that is not going to change overnight – thinking ‘one day at a time’ or even ‘it will be all right on the night’ is not good enough – we need a transition period for implementation and to phase in end test.

The reputation of the Apprenticeship brand and its future is not wholly about how much levy has or has not been spent – indeed it’s a good job that only 10% has been spent and volumes are down – who knows what a mess we would have been in with EPA if levy had been driven hard and volumes increased.

I lie awake at night thinking about EPA, and the impact on our employers and learners who we will have to address when disaster has struck.

Call me scare mongering but I am genuinely concerned and happy to play my part in a system that is ‘fit for purpose’ – it just isn’t at the moment and I don’t sense many people are listening – even the IFA

So, like the rest, I’m going back to ‘one day at a time’ from Sam Smith and try and play it very, very loudly to block out the discomfort of end test assessment.

Peter Marples, Group Chief Operating Officer, 3aaa Apprenticeships

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