We are all, in Apprenticeship Land, very familiar with the concept of End-point Assessment, or EPA. Originally devised by Matthew Hancock as part of his far-reaching apprenticeship reforms, the principle of EPA was intended to put some integrity into the overall value of apprenticeships. By separating the body that undertook the final decision regarding whether or not the apprentice had ‘passed’ their apprenticeship, from the organisation that had delivered the training, it was hoped that apprenticeships would be more highly valued.
In the light of experience, is this happening? Do we still view EPA as a mechanism for increasing the overall ‘stock’ of the apprenticeship product? What do employers think of it, and what about those employers who deliver their own training?
The rules are very clear regarding EPA. In whatever category you are, employer, provider or employer/provider, the ESFA Funding Rules say “organisations who deliver the training cannot make EPA judgements for that same group of apprentices”. There are some exceptions to this. Firstly, where as part of the Standard, the assessment process is integrated into the delivery of the training. This mainly applies to some degree apprenticeships, and represents very much, the minority of new standards. Also, as part of some assessment plans, employers can be granted an exemption, and be allowed to assess their own apprentices, although even here, they have to demonstrate a clear separation between the training and the assessment.
Generally, however, there is a need for most employers to try and find an End-Point Assessment Organisation (EPAO). For most this should not be too difficult, but for some, it is literally impossible! We know from statistics released by the DfE, that there are a significant number of apprentices on programme, (circa 1,500 at the end of July) for whom there is not yet an EPA registered. There are yet more for whom the employer has ‘Hobson’s Choice’ (ie only one registered EPAO). The DfE seems fairly ‘relaxed’ about this position, but can we imagine this happening in a GCSE or A Level context? No! I think that urgent measures are needed. We are too late to say that no-one can start on an apprenticeship unless there is an EPAO in place, but 1,500 apprentices is not an insignificant number. Whether it is because some Standards are too niche, or the assessment plan is too impractical or inappropriate, Government needs to start taking this issue seriously. For me, it will only need one apprentice to get to the end of their programme and not be able to undertake the EPA, for the whole apprenticeship brand to be devalued
When Government decided that we should have EPA, and therefore bring apprenticeships into line with academic qualifications, the rhetoric was clear. Independent assessment is mandatory. As we have already seen, there is some evidence of ‘backing-off’ from this ideal. Integrated assessment, and some employer / provider exemptions, move us away from where we started. A number of training providers have set up new businesses or even divisions within existing businesses to undertake EPA. I have no difficulty with this, provided that the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) and the DfE uphold the principle of independence. One of the criticism of apprenticeships (and NVQs before them) was that they were merely a tick box process. EPA has brought in both the perception and in the main, the reality, of some rigour. We need to make sure that we avoid any further compromise.
So, what of employers, what do they think of EPA? Where they can, some employers are staying with frameworks for a variety of reasons, one of which is to avoid EPA. There is no doubt that some employers see EPA as unnecessary, additional red-tape, whereas others welcome the move to bring in some independent rigour.
We have seen a large rise in the number of employers who are also their own provider. Some of those have expressed the view that they should be allowed to undertake their own EPA, often on the simple grounds that they do everything else. This is not a view to which I subscribe. There should be no ‘dual processes’. If an apprenticeship requires an independent final assessment, then that needs to be the case whoever delivers the training. We should not have different rules for different methods of delivery. For the sake of apprenticeship integrity, we need to maintain the principle of EPA.
Over the recent past, I have witnessed many debates regarding the future of EPA, and for some, the hope that it will be watered down or scrapped. This should not happen. It really does give more credibility to apprenticeships, and puts them on a more even footing alongside academic alternatives. Both routes now have the concept of the end-result being judged independently. This is a step towards eliminating the academic vs vocational apartheid that we have had in this country for many years. In any case, for those who do not like the apprenticeship reform programme, there are aspects of it that genuinely do need sorting out, like the 20% off-job training rule!
Can we definitively say that the inclusion of EPA is delivering better, higher quality apprenticeships? Maybe not just yet, but I believe that we need to give this aspect of apprenticeship reforms a chance at least. I say leave EPA alone, and let it do its job!