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TQUK is continuing its running commentary of the government’s apprenticeship reforms and EPA. This week, we’re coming at you with an instalment exploring the difficulty of recruiting and retaining end-point assessors.

“The whole process is just confused,” says Alex. He glances at a spreadsheet and highlights a column in light blue, scrolls up and down the column, then shrinks the window. “We know what they’re trying to do, we’re going along with it. But...”

Alex is slim, with tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses, wavy black side-swept hair that denotes carefully executed bedragglement and a tug up on one side of his mouth. I can’t entirely tell if he’s smirking or scoffing. Then he lifts his right ankle onto his left knee and spreads out in his chair. He’s comfortable talking about what he knows.

“The process assumes that the perfect people exist for you to use all the time. But I haven’t seen them.”

Alex is TQUK’s new EPA coordinator. He’s sitting in front of a window bright with an uncommonly fresh-feeling afternoon. As we talk, he glances at his monitor repeatedly as emails pop into his inbox, one by one.

“Like here,” he says, opening a Word file with someone’s CV in it. “I mean, she’s got IQA. But she’s in Carlyle and the closest centre is Cardiff. Not going to work.”

I nod. Alex was chosen to head up TQUK’s new EPA division. When TQUK was approved to deliver end-point assessment for the new apprenticeship standards, we knew that coordinating our resources with requests from employers was going to need its own department in itself. The company needed someone who not only had the confidence and drive to enter a new job but who knew the assessment industry inside and out. Alex has a particular knack for assessment having worked in quality assurance for several companies, most recently TQUK.

“Couldn’t you just pay her to go down to Cardiff?” I say. Almost immediately, he holds up his hand to halt me in my tracks.

“That’s a whole other can of worms.”

As the government ‘s apprenticeship reforms are implemented and more awarding organisations, training providers and employers begin to familiarise themselves with the new laws, most are desperately trying to cobble together some kind of plan that will allow them to operate in this new standard/EPA environment. TQUK’s been staying ahead of the game by creating all the resources we’ll need like sourcing and writing new MCQ test papers for the Situational Judgement Tests, employer and learner packs that will guide them through each stage of the apprenticeship, from cradle to grave. We also hope to launch a brand new EPA website in the near future which will have all our resources in one place. We’re hoping to make the transition as easy and seamless for as many people as possible.

But storming into these new frontiers has naturally brought us up against some obstacles.

Our Head of Awarding Organisation, Katie Orr, recently wrote about the difficulties of AOs creating multiple-choice test papers for the new standards in the Times Education Supplement. And our Lead Business Development Manager, Kelle McQuade, has given her thoughts in FE News on the difficulties assessors will have switching from the old framework apprenticeships to the new standards. However, one of the least discussed aspects of EPA is the hiring and retention of people who will be, you know, doing the work: the assessors themselves.

Alex has been preparing for this transition for many weeks. He seems to have taken to the position with a stoic knowledge of his own limitations and his inability to predict what will come next.

“We’re basically just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. Some things will. Eventually. It sounds silly, but not a lot of AOs even know much about EPA, much less what they’re going to do about it.” Ultimately, this isn’t surprising. What we know and what we planning for might change in the next half hour, so fickle are the new rules and the government that decides them.

This doesn’t help the pool of prospective people who will be taken on to be new EPA assessors. With all the uncertainty, it is difficult for most AOs to provide reliable and consistent information on what particular assessment jobs will involve and how to prepare. And with so little certainty about what an assessor job will entail and how it will work in practical terms, it is now becoming very difficult for many AOs to gain the assessor capacity they need to deliver end-point assessment.

In general, the vast majority of the potential assessors of EPA will have been framework assessors. In a framework context, assessors would assess the apprentice’s performance throughout the apprenticeship. In an apprenticeship standard context, assessors will come into the process for a 6 to 8 week timeframe (in most cases) and assess the apprentice’s knowledge, skills and behaviours.

The change was made for several reasons. It was deemed necessary by the government that an apprentice’s performance be judged by an independent and objective arbiter with no prior relationship between them the employer, the training provider and the apprentice. It would also provide the apprentice with a single opportunity to holistically use the knowledge and skills they have gained throughout the apprenticeship.

“Objectivity’s going to be useful for the apprentice. It will probably make them better at what they’re training  to do,” Alex says, craning his neck to look over his computer where Ash has spilled tea on his keyboard two desk rows down. “But at this point, it feels as if they’re creating more problems than they’re solving.

“One of the main problems with finding people is exactly this problem of figuring out who can or can’t be an assessor. You can have experience as a framework assessor, but that won’t necessarily give all the relevant experience you’ll need to do EPA.

“Then there’s internal quality assurance as well. People who have this type of experience, as well as having experience as an assessor, would be more likely to understand the objectivity involved in EPA. However, having experience in IQA doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to assess apprentices at EPA either.”

TQUK, in light of the inconsistency in assessor experience, considered creating a bespoke qualification that would train assessors to provide EPA, possibly at Level 4. It seemed like a good idea. We could design a qualification that would give a prospective EPA assessor all the knowledge and skills they would need to do the job. But then we began to think: Would it actually be beneficial? Would it create an artificial and unnecessary barrier to entry? If we made it a requirement for assessors, would it make recruitment that much harder?

There are some intractable problems in simply finding people to do end-point assessment. The first and most obvious problem is location. Assessors have to be mobile and be able to travel long distances to do fairly short term work.

Another problem is time.  Eventually, the talent pool of assessors will divide into a minority of full time, reliable assessors and a majority of assessors who will do assessment while working full or part time, making them less consistent and reliable. Scheduling could also be a nightmare. Many independent assessors work for many organisations at the same time or do freelance work. Booking someone with sufficient time to prepare and clear schedules, aligning timeframes with apprentices, coordinators, trainers and assessors can be very difficult.

Yet another problem is grading. Grading a learner is, at bottom, a subjective exercise. Since most apprenticeship standard grades are provided on the framework of pass, merit and distinction, there isn’t too much room for nuance. The grading criteria provided by the government are, in many cases, still imprecise. It’s so imprecise that, if you got 30 assessors in the same room to judge the same apprentice’s performance, 10 of them would give them a pass, 10 of them give a merit and 10 of them would give a distinction. And none would be wrong.

Is it feasible for apprentice assessment organisations to keep permanent, full-time staff. Because of the precarious nature of the work, assessors must be contractors. Most end-point assessment jobs are too specialised to do full time. All an AAO like us can do is keep a register of potential resources all over the country and hope we have one in the right place at the right time.

But even with all the problems stated above, there is a good case to be made for more objectivity in end-point assessment. We simply have to do what we think will be best and see what happens. Hopefully, the industry will learn, inconsistencies will be straightened out and gaps will get filled, and all these problems will, over time, sort themselves out.

One hopes, anyway.

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See you out there!