Challenge three - The EPA model

Is the new assessment model fit-for-purpose? Is it scalable? How have the reforms affected the use of qualifications in apprenticeships? 12th September 2019

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1) Sustainability

Compared to the annual cycle of GCSEs and A-level examinations each summer, the delivery of apprenticeships and their accompanying EPAs is necessarily more complicated. This means that apprenticeship providers and End Point Assessment Organisations (EPAOs) face numerous challenges in terms of organising and carrying out EPAs. For example, EPAs might be required at any point during the year, unlike GCSEs and A-levels, and the locations at which EPAs are needed will also vary enormously. In addition, the fact that EPAOs must invest in the up-front development of EPAs can make it unviable to deliver assessments for standards that are likely to have small volumes of apprentices.

Not only do EPAOs have to find ways to cope with such variations, training providers can struggle to arrange an EPA when their apprentice is ready to be assessed because there might not be an available assessment opportunity for several weeks, if not months. Seeing as the apprentice will have completed their training by this point, the potential lack of an available EPA could easily result in apprentices being less prepared and less focussed when the EPA eventually arrives. Moreover, the apprentice could be given new duties at work that are entirely unrelated to their training while waiting for their EPA. The inability of training providers to maintain their relationship with the apprentice once the formal training programme is complete (at which point the apprentice moves through the ‘gateway’ towards their EPA) is therefore having unintended consequences for both training providers and apprentices.

Questions

  • What could be done to increase the availability of EPAs for apprentices?
  • Is the provision of EPAs sufficiently attractive for EPAOs in terms of financial viability, particularly with low volumes expected for some standards?
  • Could the role of the training provider be altered to create additional capacity within the current framework for EPAs?
  • Are the rules around who can deliver EPAs having an impact on the ability of EPAOs to deliver the required volumes of assessments, and what could be done to address this?

2) Design

Aside from sustainability, there are several issues related to the design of EPAs that were felt to be affecting apprentices, EPAOs, employers and training providers. For example, it was noted that the lack of formative assessment within the overall framework for assessing the competence of apprentices is, and always has been, against the wishes of many employers. The requirement for ‘independent assessment’ is still recognised as an important feature of EPAs, but the interpretation of this requirement is potentially causing problems in terms of the capacity of the EPA system as well as the complexity and bureaucracy that ‘independence’ may generate in some cases. The narrow focus of many EPAs was felt to be linked to the rigid rules around the different assessment components of EPAs and the regulations about how they must be combined. This may reflect a wider concern that there is a clear emphasis being placed on promoting a style of assessment that is ‘academic’ in nature rather than seeking to build an approach to assessing apprentices that is based on best practice in vocational training.

Questions

  • Should the balance of formative and summative assessment for apprenticeship EPAs be changed, and if so, what could this look like?
  • Does the current conception of ‘independent assessment’ need adjusting to help improve the capacity of the EPA system as a whole?
  • Is there enough feedback being collected regarding the effectiveness and appropriateness of EPAs that have already been approved?

3) Standardisation

Although it was widely acknowledged among the group that a consistent approach to EPAs across the full range of apprenticeship standards was a useful starting point, the inflexibility of the current EPA system is having numerous undesirable consequences. For example, the incorporation of academic-style assessments such as essays into apprenticeships has meant that some competent and effective trainees are struggling to pass their assessments. The rules around the use of qualifications within apprenticeships has also been a point of contention ever since the wider reforms began several years ago. Although qualifications are now allowed within apprenticeships, they are not allowed to be used for assessing the apprentices during, or at the end of, their training. This means that in many cases, the actual qualifications that employers seek from potential applicants can become irrelevant for the delivery of EPAs.

What’s more, the role of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IFATE) has created several tensions within the EPA system. The continued use of four different options for quality-assuring EPAs was widely regarded as a negative feature of the current EPA system, as it promotes inconsistency and unreliability across the apprenticeships landscape. Moreover, the IFATE’s rigid implementation of some rules has caused frustration among employers and EPAOs, which has prevented them from designing and delivering the type of EPAs that their industry sector needs (particularly in sectors that operate with a ‘licence to practice’ for specific occupations). It was felt this failure to support an EPA system that is responsive to the needs of employers is potentially an area for further reform.

Questions

  • Which rules and regulations may need to change if EPAs are to be improved, both within and across industry sectors?
  • How could the processes used by the IFATE for judging and approving EPAs be enhanced so that they deliver better outcomes for apprentices and employers?
  • How should the quality assurance of EPAs be approached in future
  • Is the current approach to the use of qualifications within apprenticeships having the desired effect on employers and EPAOs
  • What role, if any, could the training standards found in ‘World Skills’ competitions be used to promote the standardisation of EPAs and apprenticeship standards?