Linda Martin, Professional Assessment Ltd

At this point, new standard apprenticeships are no longer ‘new’.  Some of the employer-designed programmes, which require the apprentice to undergo an end-point assessment, have been delivered for over three years now.  Professional Assessment Ltd, or PAL, as we call ourselves, has seen the delivery of the standards develop over this period, and supported this development by feeding back the trends from EPA.  Having been on the approved register of end-point assessment organisations for around two years, we now assess 17 standards including the full suite of hospitality, adult care and retail apprenticeships, as well as events and management standards.  We have over 3000 apprentices registered with us and have completed approximately 700 full assessments.  We currently have around 400 apprentices going through end-point assessment nationally.

I should stress at this stage I am a believer in apprenticeships and work-based/vocational training, having worked in the sector in various guises for a fair few years.  Therefore, I have confidence in the system’s resilience, and its capacity to adapt and to contribute to the skills required by employers here, now and in the future.  Of course, at times, certain initiatives do perplex or frustrate me, but the benefits, impact and potential of apprenticeship delivery is something I feel strongly about.

Apprenticeship standards and all of their constituent parts have undergone significant transformation since 2016.  The involvement of employers in the design and delivery of the standards allows for their continuous improvement, with all stakeholders having a voice.  From my perspective, the system is now delivering an even better apprenticeship experience for all concerned.  Is it a perfect system?  No.  However, all of us involved are responding to the challenges.  Positivity about apprenticeships, from our perspective, comes from our assessment experience.  We are incredibly privileged to be able to undertake independent assessments with some truly fabulous apprentices.

The results have been positive, particularly where programme delivery is in-line with the requirements of the standard.  Apprentices and employers have seen a fantastic impact from apprenticeship training and the end-point assessment has been seen as a robust endorsement of the apprentice’s competence.  Indeed, going through the process of end-point assessment builds confidence in the apprentice and is testimony to their resilience.  Another positive addition to the system has been the introduction of grading.  This has allowed exceptional performance to be recognised, and around 20% of apprentices achieve the higher grades.  It is possible!

Working in Partnership

For apprenticeship delivery to be effective, each stage of the journey must build to end-point assessment and each agent involved needs to be a partner to the apprentice.  Those involved – the employer, mentor, training provider and end-point assessment organisation, all need to ensure good partnership working.  This means understanding each other’s challenges, having a common purpose, being purposeful, and being responsive at all times using defined and agreed lines of communication.  There will inevitably be issues that we all have to address, and open dialogue is not the solution itself, but it is a catalyst for improvement.

Effective partnerships also need an established set of ground rules and protocols.  A lack of clarity in arrangements ultimately leads to a weaker programme for the apprentice.  Listening to our clients, I am informed what they want from an EPAO, is a responsive service that provides straightforward information on the what, where, when and how of assessment, with simple streamlined guidance, and that is what we endeavour to provide.

Working closely in partnership with an end-point assessment organisation also offers benefits to the programme as a whole.  We have a unique vantage point and can provide valuable insights into which elements of the apprenticeship programme have the most impact with regards to talent development and building organisational capability.

In terms of a common purpose, as an end-point assessment organisation, we want the apprentice to do well as much as anybody else involved.  This is not an abandonment of the concept of independence; we can be objective and impartial without being adversarial.  Assessment is a judgement from the other side, but the other side should not be perceived as the enemy.  We can have defined, independent assessment, but retain that common purpose.

Involving line managers, HODs and mentors in the apprenticeship journey is also essential.  They can provide coaching and moral support to the apprentice and can support the assessment scheduling.  One of the things PAL offers is line manager orientation to ensure they fully understand the requirements.  This has proved effective in ensuring apprentices have the best chance of success in terms of times and locations for assessments, overcoming possible logistical issues and having contingencies in place for things that might hinder assessment.

What do Apprentices Think of Apprenticeships?

Comments from apprentices we have interviewed about their experiences showed that they felt the end-point assessment had thoroughly tested them and was an appropriate finale of their programme.

Another overriding theme was that the apprentices valued the training input from the training provider, and also the support and mentoring from their line manager.

One of the most encouraging things we found was that apprentices who did exceptionally well at end-point assessment had realised that success was ultimately down to them.  They had taken ownership of their learning and made sure they got the most from their end-point assessment, using it as a chance to shine.  They had also learnt to reflect, become more self-critical and be more open to feedback.  These apprentices were describing self-managed, double-loop learning, and to paraphrase Alvin Toffler an American futurist and businessman, “the illiterate of the 21st century, will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who can’t learn; unlearn and re-learn”.

A Positive Outlook

The system isn’t perfect, and we will all face more challenges to ensure apprenticeships provide part of the answer to the recruitment and retention issues within the sectors we serve.  However, if success is denoted by the propensity to cope with change and adapt, then the current climate certainly confronts us to do this.  Eric Hoffer is a moral and social philosopher, who noted “In the time of drastic change it is the learner who inherits the future.  The learned usually find themselves in a world that no longer exists”.  If we see ourselves as custodians of our sectors and care about the future of our industries, then we must be positive about what apprenticeship programmes can achieve, and we must be willing to be learners as well.