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Frameworks to Standards – A Let Down or Work In Progress?

Transition to standards
Cassandra Macdonald
By Cassandra MacDonald, Head of Client Solutions - Apprenticeships Link to Cassandra MacDonald's LinkedIn profile

The transition from apprenticeship frameworks to standards has been mismanaged by successive governments.
Employers have been let down.

Reading through the Parliamentary report* into Apprenticeships earlier this week, the above statement felt like the perfect title for an essay on Apprenticeship reforms - just lacking the word ‘discuss’ after it.

Having spent the last 7 years working in this sector and being heavily involved in many different Trailblazer groups, the statement got me thinking…has the move to standards really been a let-down? Is this a fair statement?

Looking back to 2013/14, and the early days of developing the Accountancy standards, there was a genuine desire to create something that would be truly employer led, widen access to the profession and provide best-in-class training.

The forerunner of these standards - the Professional Services Frameworks - had taken steps forward to focus on more than just technical training, but the prescriptive nature of the assessment criteria reaffirmed a belief that Apprenticeships were burdensome and overly complex. Was it really fair to say somebody was incapable of leading a meeting if they hadn’t ticked the box to say ‘they’d ordered in tea and biscuits?’.

This was the big opportunity standards were going to bring – the chance to move away from ‘box- ticking’ to the design and delivery of programmes that allowed more flexibility around skills and behavioural development. It would enable learners, through end point assessment, to really showcase the best of their work and gain access to genuine workplace opportunities.

It’s this belief in what standards are there to do that made me initially question whether the statement was justified. But on further reflection, there do seem to be some key areas that lend truth to the claim.

1) Consistency of EPA

EPA monitoring is subject to ongoing debate, and is central to the issue of ensuring a workable system for employers. The range of different methods of assessment and rules and regulations for each is vast, and changing government views on what’s in and out does little to help (e.g. portfolios, reflective statements).

Not only this but each assessment plan has it’s own rules (so 30 different ways to compile a portfolio?) and each EPAO then has their own interpretation of those assessment plans. This isn't a criticism of EPAOs - who are left with very little to go on other than what’s in the assessment plans. However, the system does allow for too much inconsistency in approach so it’s easy to see why employers can quickly lose confidence and learners are unclear about what it is they are actually ‘getting’.

2) Review of assessment plans and standards

Linked to this is the ‘3 year review’ of standards and assessment plans. In theory, it's a sensible time period to review but given the fact that it sometimes took nearly 3 years to sign off the assessment plan, after the standard was approved, it means we’re already reviewing programmes that have so far seen very few learners take the EPA. This leaves little data to judge if methods are successful or not.

Valuable time has been spent working with employers, preparing them for what’s involved. Additionally, we now we have to revisit what we’ve told them because it’s in review and is likely to fall foul of changing rules over what’s in and what’s out of EPA…is it a system that’s genuinely working for employers?

3) Funding band changes

As with the review of assessment plans, the review of funding bands has caused much consternation in the sector. Many of these standards up for a cut have only been in use for 18-24 months. Employers have only just established schemes and found providers they want to work with, but now the whole scheme could be in jeopardy. This is due to the rates getting cut to such an extent that the schemes may no longer be deliverable.

Ever an optimist, I can but remain hopeful that in time things will settle down and the ambition of standards, first eagerly discussed in those early Trailblazer groups, can be fully realised.

But the continual need to change policies, still in their infancy, and failure to tackle some of the biggest concerns around the new reforms means we are now in a position where employers can justifiably say they feel let down by a system overhaul that was meant to work for them, and be led by them.

* The apprenticeships ladder of opportunity: quality not quantity