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Apprentices deserve fairness

In principle, employers creating the standards for professional qualifications is sound. Who better understands what is needed from an apprentice in a sector?

In practice, the standards created by the Trailblazer groups are unfair. The assessment criteria that apprentices are judged by are haphazard and so vague as to be pointless.

The word “standard” has two meanings. First, it is the level you should attain to be considered a success. Second, it suggests a commonality across criteria that means that courses can be compared and that a learner on one programme is treated equally to that on another.

The change from the framework to standards in the apprenticeship sector was meant to allow equivalency with the academic route. It has failed.

When writing criteria for an academic qualification, a stringent process guarantees their validity and fairness. There is an overarching convention for writing the criteria at each level, with a common language. This approach, thoroughly tested and audited by Ofqual, means that Level 2 qualifications are at one level of difficulty, and Level 3, 6 and 7 are gradually harder. It also means there is a recognised level between one sector and another, as a person doing Science GCSEs should expect the same rigour as those doing a Maths GCSE.

After doing a thorough mapping exercise of the nearly 700 apprenticeship courses, this is not happening in the apprenticeship sector. A Level 3 apprentice is expected to achieve dozens of standards, while someone at Level 7 is barely required to go beyond 10. It is not even that the standards at Level 7, especially for behaviours, are harder. In fact, many of the standards statements are the same, no matter the level.

Interviewing one training provider, the general impression is that this is an open secret in the sector, and there is a widely held opinion that the criteria are unfair. Another training provider joked that they introduced a Level 7 qualification and were pleasantly surprised to see how easy it was compared to their Level 2 qualifications.

As a bonus, an EPA assessor is given significant freedom to apply levels of interpretation when applying these vague statements. Only now are these EPA organisations coming under the authority of Ofqual. And still, they will be able to point to the standards when challenged with the reliability and rigour of their assessment practices.

There is a need for a revolution in the writing of standards.

Yes, employers must be involved, and the Trailblazer Groups are an important component of the process. However, volunteer standards writers with no experience in writing assessment criteria cannot be the arbiter of a credible qualification.

If apprenticeships want to claim equivalence to academic routes, as the learners deserve, they will have to be more professional in the structures and systems of assessment.

Racheal Smith has worked in education for 25 years and has been responsible for creating specifications as a Chief Examiner. Currently working as a Head of Learning for Entelechy Academy, she is committed to being part of meaningful educational reform.

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