Catherine Large OBE at the Annual Apprenticeship Conference

Ofqual's Executive Director for Vocational and Technical Qualifications discusses apprenticeship end point assessments (EPA), changes to the EPA market, and the role of high-quality assessment.

Catherine Large OBE

Hello everyone, thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. I first started working on apprenticeships 16 years ago, when I was at Creative & Cultural Skills and we were initiating the very first ones for the creative sector, and I’ve been involved in the system ever since. It’s a particular pleasure to be here today, therefore, and great to see so many familiar faces in the audience.

As the qualifications regulator, it is our job to make sure that the apprenticeship end point assessments that are in our purview are awarded consistently and fairly, with the apprentice’s interests protected as a priority. It is from this position that I bring you some perspectives today.

I’d like to focus on 3 key things.

Firstly, I’d like to provide a market update. You will be aware that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IFATE) took a decision in 2020 that all end point assessments would be overseen by a statutory regulator – either Ofqual or the Office for Students (OfS) – rather than an EQA provider. This has had a specific impact on the organisations offering EPAs, who have had to apply to be recognised by Ofqual in order to remain in the market. Many of those in the audience today, many of you, have participated in this programme and we really appreciate the effort that has gone into making these applications, and the dialogue we’ve had throughout. I’ll provide an update today on where we’ve got to with this, and how the market is evolving as a consequence.

Secondly, I’d like to reflect on the value that high-quality assessment can bring to apprenticeships. Last year I reflected on general themes that we have seen from our evaluation of assessment materials. This year I’ll extend this to themes we have seen from our observations of assessment in the field, for example how the role of the assessor is working in practice.

And finally, I’d like to highlight a few things we have got coming up which I hope will be helpful to the sector to support ongoing delivery. As I say, we want to ensure that apprentices get assessed fairly, in a way that produces results that employers can rely on. Where there is a choice, we will choose the route that protects the apprentice – that, as we see it, is what our statute empowers us to do. This complements the work of IfATE, who bring the perspective of employers. Working together, in strategic partnership, we uphold quality.

So, to start with, let me provide you with an overview of the end point assessment market, and how this has changed over the last 12 months. The decision that IfATE made in 2020 to ensure that all apprenticeship assessments are awarded by organisations that are subject to statutory regulation was an important development.

Four hundred and twenty-eight apprenticeship standards have now transferred to Ofqual from other EQA providers, bringing the total number that Ofqual is now assigned to as the regulator to 588. The remainder of the market, those offering degree apprenticeships, is now assigned to OfS. There are a small number of exemptions to this which are managed by IfATE directly, working with others.

At the end of the transition process, there remains a healthy market of 140 regulated awarding organisations who offer end point assessments, offering plenty of choice to training providers. The Department for Education (DfE) and IfATE are confident that there will be no apprentice left without an end point assessment who is expecting one – together, we are achieving full market coverage. And a new quality bar has been set.

We are pleased that so many organisations, of all shapes and sizes, have met that necessarily high bar we set for entering the regulated community of awarding organisations in recent months. There were 218 organisations on DfE’s Register of End Point Assessment Organisations at the start that were identified as part of the transition programme. 58 of these were awarding organisations already recognised by Ofqual. 13 chose not to apply. 147 organisations therefore applied to us in total over the course of the programme, and I am pleased to say that 69 have so far achieved Ofqual recognition. So if you add those 69 to the original 58, and a few new ones that have come in on the journey, you get to the 140 healthy market I referenced earlier.

This does not mean that the market will remain static from this point. We continue to see those who were not successful re-apply. We are also seeing existing awarding organisations apply to expand their scope of recognition, so that they can offer additional apprenticeship standards. I think we will continue to see the market evolve over the next period before it finally settles.

All newly-recognised awarding organisations have had to prove to Ofqual that they have appropriate capacity, capability and governance to deliver their specific offer. They have had to prove that their senior officers are suitable, that any conflicts of interest can be managed, that they have got the right resources in place with appropriate levels of financial stability, and that they have the appropriate expertise to deliver assessments. This provides the market with a quality baseline. Awarding organisations also have to comply with Ofqual’s Conditions of Recognition on an ongoing basis, and this is where our ongoing monitoring and checks on quality kick in.

Let us turn next, therefore, to the role that high-quality assessment plays in apprenticeships, and what we are seeing in delivery. I’d like to talk about some of the themes that have emerged from our regulation to date, with a view to supporting continuous improvement.

I’d like to emphasise, and continue to emphasise, that the assessment plan developed by employers and approved by IfATE, is an important blueprint for high-quality end point assessment. We would expect awarding organisations to bring their own sectoral and technical assessment design expertise to bear in interpreting it. We have now reviewed all 400 plus assessment plans that have transitioned to Ofqual, so we can have clear sight of how awarding organisations are interpreting them in practice, and where additional consistency is needed. In particular sectors, we have brought together awarding organisations in forums to drive this consistency in interpretation. We are also providing feedback to IfATE where we think an assessment plan needs changing or clarifying to support that consistency of approach.

We expect awarding organisations to take in to account the relevant employment context in their assessment design, as set out in the assessment plan, and to make sure, for example, that questions aren’t focused on a part of an industry for example that the apprentice may not have experience of where a standard covers multiple job roles. We want awarding organisations to set clear parameters and expectations for how observations should be conducted, and to include some exemplification of the grading criteria to show what an assessor should be looking for in practice. For interviews or professional discussions, we’d like awarding organisations to produce clear guidance for assessors to use when deciding on which questions to ask, and how prompts should be used and taken account of when marking. For assessments that use observation, or a portfolio, showcase or journals, we’d like to see the expectations of apprentices set out clearly, for example with the number of pieces of evidence required, the types of evidence to include and format required, and to have a clear and effective process for authenticating this evidence.

As we go out in the field, we are seeing some excellent examples of professional assessors, where some awarding organisations have clearly provided their assessors with the guidance, training and infrastructure to enable them to deliver consistent assessment judgements.

We have also seen some examples of poor practice, however, where this is not in place. I’d like to emphasise today that we consider the assessor an integral part of the awarding organisation – they are not separate or independent. It is an awarding organisation’s responsibility to ensure that their assessors follow procedures, are trained appropriately, and adhere to these processes when they are in the field.

These are all examples which have a direct read across to our regulatory framework that awarding organisations need to adhere to. We have published findings from our technical evaluation process, which provides further examples of good practice, which is available to you if you search for Ofqual and apprenticeships on GOV.UK.

Where Ofqual identifies poor assessment material or an assessor not following due process, we take action. We investigate any concerns thoroughly and, where appropriate, we will take regulatory action to protect the interests of apprentices.

Finally, today I’d like to mention some forthcoming publications and engagement opportunities from Ofqual that I hope will support you all in delivery.

We are welcoming a large number of new organisations into regulation, and we are keen to ensure that all have the information they need to comply effectively with our Conditions of Recognition going forward. We will be publishing an update to our regulatory approach to end point assessment in April, that sets out in more detail what can be expected from us as a regulator going forward.

Alongside this, and our induction programme targeted at newly recognised awarding organisations, we have got a bi-monthly regulator’s briefing for all those recognised, and webinars on specific topics. So please do get in contact if there are specific areas where additional information and support is needed.

Later this year you will see EPA outcomes data being included in our quarterly vocational and technical qualifications statistical release for the first time. We will also shortly be publishing an update to our statutory guidance for apprenticeship end point assessments, following our consultation last year. We have listened hard to what you said needed clarifying in our regulatory framework, and have either changed things or provided additional explanation in response. We will host specific engagement sessions for awarding organisations when it launches.

To conclude I would just like to say one thing. We are clearly motivated by improving quality in the apprenticeship assessment system, and if you are too, please do talk to us. My colleagues are hosting seminars here today and tomorrow, providing more detail and information on all I have just set out. Please do go along and engage with them if you want to find out more.

There are many different ways you can get involved in our work: whether as a sector expert helping with our evaluations and observations, as an assessment expert informing our research, as a training provider on our centre reference group, or as an employer or apprentice providing us with feedback about how the system is working for you. We want you to help us continue to ensure that the assessments taken by apprentices and used by employers are as valid and reliable as they can possibly be.

Thank you.

Published 17 March 2023