Opportunities for functional skills assessments are available now and the country is "through the worst of it" in terms of apprentices being held back from completing their qualifications, the Ofqual chief regulator has said.
Simon Lebus, who was appointed on an interim basis in December, told the Association of Employment and Learning Providers' conference today that he had taken up his post "halfway through the process", but the challenges created by learners not being able to access functional skills assessments during the coronavirus lockdown – and therefore being unable to complete their qualifications – had been one of the issues that was “right at the top of the in-tray”.
“I was very aware of the problem and very aware of the impact. The DfE [Department for Education] had a policy position in relation to it. What I was heartened by was that although the awarding bodies had to move their assessment capability online, I have quite a lot of experience of that over the years and it is, I think, quite a good way of administering such assessment. I appreciate it wasn’t always available, there wasn’t always access everywhere."
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Mr Lebus said assessments could now be provided again. "I think we are looking forward to and hoping 21 June is going to represent a return to normality so I think there is access now and opportunity for those assessments to take place. But I am aware that it’s been problematic and difficult, and I do feel for those who have been adversely impacted. It has been an extremely unfortunate situation, but I think we’re by and large now through the worst of it. There are very few learners still affected and I hope we’ll soon be able to remedy that."
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Mr Lebus added: “I think it has, perversely, had a beneficial effect in perhaps accelerating some of the migration to online assessment that will, longer-term, make the system much more resilient if we were to have another such crisis in the future.”
Simon Ashworth, chief policy officer at AELP, said functional skills assessment had been a major issue for providers, and thousands of apprentices had been severely disadvantaged by not being able to take their exams. “It has had impact in terms of progression opportunities and salaries. Big challenges as well for training providers, who were needing to support those learners for longer periods of time, and so on,” he added.
Speaking more broadly on the assessment of technical qualifications during the pandemic, Mr Lebus said Ofqual had seen some excellent examples of remote assessment and remote invigilation, "which, when done well, can bring convenience for providers and for students, and can allow results to be awarded that would otherwise have been delayed". "So I take this opportunity to say thank you to everybody," he added.
Arrangements for 2022 underway
Mr Lebus said he wanted to reassure providers that arrangements for 2022 are already underway. "We recognise that the students taking exams and assessments next year would have had significant disruption to their education this year. Alongside the department and with the awarding organisations and wider stakeholder groups, we are considering what might need to be done to ensure students are able to sit their exams and take other assessments safely and receive grades that are fair, even if further disruption does occur. This will, of course, draw on lessons learned from the pandemic," he said.
The Ofqual chief highlighted that this summer GCSE and A-level results will be coming out on the same week, and many level 2 and level 3 qualifications will be coming out at the same time, so as not disappoint students who will be using them for progression. But although results days will look different on the surface, it will be, as always, an anxious time for all learners. They will need support from employers who may find they are taking on new employees who have a slightly different skillset to those they are used to.
“Employees who, although they may have been out of the classroom a great deal over the last 18 months, would have developed other skills from learning a different way, such as expertise in using video conferencing platforms and other business tools," said Mr Lebus. "However different the experience of those new employees is, they have nonetheless achieved their qualification and are now ready for the chance to show what they can do."