The impending end-point assessment (EPA) "car crash" is a bit like Brexit. It has been anticipated for three years. And the lack of agreed solutions for both could have serious consequences. But while the politicians are grappling with the next deadline of 31 October for Brexit, apprenticeship training and service providers are faced with an earlier and artificial one of 31 July in meeting the latest big EPA challenge.
It is important to stress that the "car crash" is not just a technical matter. Unresolved, it will be bad for apprentices, who have worked hard to complete their programmes, and equally frustrating for employers. With employers investing so much time, staff resources and money to make the apprenticeship reforms are a success, we really don’t want to let them down just as large numbers of apprentices on the new standards start to reach the end of their training.
Read more: Apprenticeship assessment ‘car crash’ looms
Background: Tes FE podcast: End-point assessment concerns
The real possibility of a summer bottleneck caused by a surge of demand linked to a lack of capacity and consistency in the EPA process will be damaging to the reputation of the apprenticeship programme especially among employers who have been complaining to the government about other aspects of the levy.
Of course, it will be apprenticeship training providers and the end-point assessment organisations (EPAOs) who will get the blame, bearing in mind that parliamentary committee inquiries are always quick to focus on the quality of providers. But this is a system issue and something the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) has been flagging for a long time. Once again, the government is trying to squeeze a flexible, constantly recruiting and completing programme into an academic year cycle even if this damages its delivery.
If there is a perception that the quality of programme delivery is found wanting, then employers and young people exploring their options will be put off apprenticeships. The significance of the year-end 31 July deadline is that it directly relates to how the quality of providers are officially measured on an annual basis, which in turn impacts on the programme’s reputation. This year the performance data could end up showing training providers supporting 12 months’ worth of leavers but only 8 or 9 months’ worth of completions, depending on the standards.
Need for flexibility
The reason is that there are apprentices who have not reached the gateway but will soon be making their way through and will be added to the volumes who were planned to go through in June and July. This is on top of the increased numbers since Easter, creating a potential tsunami-like surge of demand for EPA which has to be done and dusted by 31 July in order to count towards the performance data for the current academic year.
Many EPAOs have said that the end of May was their cut-off for booking in EPA activity this side of August. Remember EPA is not just about turning up and taking a test; it involves undertaking a range of different forms of assessments, some of which have to be undertaken over a period of time and with certain conditions including locations, timings and specific scenarios. Externally assured EPA does not rubber-stamp knowledge, behaviour and competency; it’s an independent testing process, so adds in the potential for part of full resits in the event of failure.
Therefore the ESFA needs to allow some flexibility in the recording of current year apprenticeship completions after 31 July. In other words, apprentices with a completion date prior to the 31 July should be allowed to have their EPA result recorded in the same year, even if the EPA is undertaken after 31 July – as if all the training has been completed in the current year.
Otherwise, there is a danger that some employers, providers and EPAOs may cut corners in driving through completions – something no one could justifiably support. AELP hears stories of employers abandoning EPAs altogether, albeit not just for EPA capacity reasons, and this adversely affects the apprentice’s progression and long-term career prospects.
Not about quality
For the vast majority of providers who would never consider cutting corners, the government’s position appears to be that they should endure the pain this year of seeing their completion rates take a severe hit – rates that the government happily publishes as a proxy for quality while doing everything they can to undermine the measure. Just to reiterate, this will have nothing to do with the quality of their training but simply because there is not enough EPA capacity in the system and because of the timing issue.
We need to smooth out this artificially spiked period of demand to match the current EPAO supply, while ensuring that EPA is an independent and high-quality process and that apprentices aren’t being disadvantaged. AELP’s proposed solution is that any apprentice with a locked-in planned end date up until 31 July should be counted with the current academic year’s success rate if the apprentice subsequently successfully and fully completes their EPA by the end of the ESFA’s R014 data collection period this October.
This week, AELP is hosting an EPAO summit in London with speakers from ESFA, IfATE and Ofqual. At this, there will be ample opportunity to ascertain the scale of the summer bottleneck and discuss our proposals to alleviate it.
AELP's view is that 31 July is a false academic year deadline. Providers, and now EPAOs, enduring pain have never won any sympathy votes. But after all the battering that the levy reforms have taken in the media and at Westminster, isn’t it more sensible to allow a little bit of flexibility that will protect the reputation of apprenticeships among employers and young people when it comes to success rates? This will, after all, impact on college apprenticeship providers as well as independent providers. The ESFA should remove the deadline now and allow this pragmatic solution to reduce the unnecessary and inappropriate pressure from the system.
Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers