From education to employment

Unveiling Challenges and Informing Solutions: Key Findings from The Apprenticeships Conference 2024

Tad Chapman

The Apprenticeships Conference 2024 revealed significant challenges for EPAOs, as per a survey conducted by risr/: managing regulatory change, assessor capacity, and assessment creation. EPAOs face resource strains amid increasing demand for apprenticeships. Solutions include AI-assisted assessment creation but require sustained support to ensure the sector’s success.

There’s always been a clear limit to the level of connection we can forge remotely. It’s why I believe it’s vital to be out on the road to truly understand the hearts and minds of colleagues in our sector. So, when February rolled around, it was great to be able to head down to The Apprenticeships Conference (TAC) in Birmingham with the risr/ team, to delve into the latest trends shaping the apprenticeship sector.

There’s always a real buzz to these in-person events, and it was brilliant for the conference hall to be as busy as I’ve seen it since we emerged from the pandemic. There were some excellent speeches, including one in particular from Doran Scott Williams’ Director of Apprenticeships Jake Tween on AI, and it was great to be able to network and engage with some of the many industry experts in attendance.

From risr/’s perspective, we wanted to seize the opportunity of having representatives from many of the nation’s leading end-point assessment organisations (EPAOs) in the same room. So, we conducted a survey with those in attendance to gain a greater understanding of the real issues facing those in the sector at the moment.

To do this, we gave respondents a list of broad statements and asked them to what extent the stated theme was a specific challenge to their operations. The survey presented us with some really interesting findings, giving our team great insight into what the current priorities and challenges of EPAOs are and how we might support them with technological solutions.

Managing regulatory change” represented a “significant challenge” for 65% of respondents.

Diving into the results, we found the number one identified issue was that “managing regulatory change” represented a “significant challenge” for 65% of respondents. Whilst designed to reduce burden and encourage greater take-up of apprenticeships, the bureaucracy associated with understanding varying new rules and regulations continues to present more work for resource-stretched EPAOs to implement.

These regulatory concerns can also be attributed to ongoing adjustments to apprenticeship standards. With the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) looking closely at numerous apprenticeship standards this year it seems certain there will be further regulatory change on the horizon for EPAOs to contend with. Only recently has IfATE updated its guidance on developing new assessment plans, much to the confusion and disillusionment of stakeholders.

Assessor capacity vs. demand

This idea of future-proofing leads me onto another interesting result from our survey. Against the backdrop of consistent growth in the number of awarding organisations and end-point assessments completed since 2020, 45% of respondents identified “assessor capacity vs. demand” as a problematic issue to contend with.

With the prime minister recently pledging to create 20,000 more apprenticeships through further reforms, it’s clear that a push to increase the number of apprentices has to be matched by a growth in the volume and capacity of assessors, otherwise we risk immediate stagnation of the system.

Interestingly, I’d wager that this 45% figure would likely have risen if we conducted the survey again now – given the PM’s recent “20,000 more apprentices” announcement. Rapid and effective changes must be made to meet this surge in demand and EPAOs have to be supported every step of the way, and it’s the duty of the entire sector to make sure this is achievable.

AI-assisted question authoring

To finish off with a flavour of what’s likely to come, 50% of respondents said “writing and maintaining assessments” was also “a significant challenge”. With the vast costs involved in producing unique assessments from agreed standards, it’s of little surprise that the advent of AI has been met with increased sector appetite towards AI-assisted question authoring.

These methods are faster and more cost-effective than traditional question-generation approaches, in turn freeing up EPAOs’ resources to address other challenges. However, they must be built and used with regulatory compliance and intellectual property safeguarding in mind. I’ll be keeping a close eye on how this appetite progresses.

Lack of resources to address the key issues facing EPAOs

The overwhelming sentiment from TAC highlighted a critical issue: a lack of resources to address the key issues facing EPAOs in the apprenticeship sector. Addressing this challenge should be our top priority if we want apprenticeships to remain successful and attractive to both employers and potential apprentices, and for EPA to remain a valued and reliable part of this system.

By providing EPAOs with the necessary support, we can create impactful and efficient solutions. However, achieving this requires sustained commitment from all stakeholders to build on the excellent work already underway. I’m looking forward to the EPA Conference in September to see how 2024 is panning out for the sector- and it just so happens that I’ll be hosting that event! I’ll see you all there.

By Tad Chapman, Vocational Education Solutions Lead, at risr/

risr/ is a global assessment software company with a decade of experience delivering high-stakes assessments.

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