How to choose the right EPAO for your apprentice

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The world of apprenticeships swims in an alphabet soup of terms and abbreviations: DfE, KSBs, NQFs, SARs, HEIs, and so the list goes on.

But some acronyms are more important than others. One that should be familiar to any manager who looks after apprentices is EPAO, which stands for ‘end-point assessment organisation’.

An EPAO is an independent body tasked with delivering and assessing the end point assessment (EPA) that all apprentices in England must undertake at the end of their training. If they fail to pass this, they won’t have completed their apprenticeship.

AAT is an approved EPAO for the Accountancy Apprenticeship Standards at levels 2-4.

As an employer, you can choose your own EPAO for your apprentice(s). Here’s some advice on selecting the right one…

Where to find an EPAO

The Register of end-point assessment organisations is available via an Excel spreadsheet on the government website, listing all those organisations qualified to carry out an independent EPA of apprentices.

However, it makes good sense to speak with the apprentice’s training provider first, listening to their suggestions about which EPAO is a good fit for your apprentice and/or company’s needs.

Olly McAfee, Director of Apprenticeship Support and Compliance at training provider First Intuition explains how the process works: “At the start of the apprenticeship, we talk with the employer and give them our options for an EPAO to deliver the end point assessment. We recommend these EPAOs on the basis of their service, level of information they provide, plus the availability of assessments.”

Employers can’t use the training provider as an EPAO, because they’re forbidden from assessing their own apprentices.

Along with input from the training provider, employers may also wish to consider the following factors when looking for an EPAO.

Does the EPAO have a strong heritage?

Because of the rising demand for apprenticeships, McAfee notes a plethora of EPAOs has sprung up in recent years. ”Today, you don’t need a huge history to provide an EPA,” he says. “As long you’ve got a few competent individuals in your team and the exam software, anybody can set themselves up as an EPAO.”

He advises employers not to be swayed by these flashy newcomers.

“When looking at the EPAO, we always look at their history and background,” says McAfee. “They should be experts in their field with strong experience of the profession.”

AAT is one of several Awarding Organisations that First Intuition works with having used AAT qualifications since its founding in 1997

“Employers trust the AAT brand,” says McAfee. “They know that if we’re benchmarking our EPA with the AAT, their apprentice will get a quality assessment. Everybody knows what the AAT is and what it stands for.”

Look at the EPAO’s website

“When First Intuition is looking for EPAOs to work with, one thing I always look for is whether they have clear communication,” says McAfee. “Is there clear information on their website? What’s their pricing policy and what do they say about fees? It’s hugely important that EPAOs are as transparent as possible. If an EPAO’s website has loads of ‘hidden’ documents, such as ‘secret’ assessment plans or templates, it’s probably not right.”

What’s their retake/resit policy?

If an apprentice doesn’t pass their assessment, they will be able to retake it in order the pass. However, EPAOs all have different policies on retakes, which is another aspect employers should consider.

Can the EPAO communicate with apprentices in a way that young people understand?

McAfee notes tech is evolving so quickly, that “students are very different to those from just two or three years ago… Today’s students don’t pick up the phone – they’re much more likely to use email, social media and message services such as WhatsApp. A good quality EPAO will respond to these changes. The AAT has particularly done a great job of embracing this digital world and reaching out to students in these areas, whereas other providers aren’t quite there yet.”

If your student will be studying remotely, it’s worth checking out the EPAO’s track record in distance learning too.

Ask your training provider to suggest EPAOs based on your organisation’s needs

“Usually, we don’t have to negotiate with employers when they’re choosing an EPAO,” says McAfee. “However, sometimes they will want to select an EPAO based on how quickly the apprentice will get their results. In accountancy, the quicker an apprentice gets to Level 7, the better for the employer, as it means they’ll get qualified and can start working sooner. If there’s a delay to the results or exams aren’t available quickly, that progression [of the apprentice] can be delayed: some employers don’t want to wait six months before an apprentice qualifies, so will select a different EPAO accordingly.”

Look at the EPAO’s pricing policy  

If you’re an employer that pays into the apprenticeship levy, you will have to use your organisation’s levy funds to cover assessment costs. If you’re a non-levy employer, you can pay for the assessment using government funding.

In both cases, it’s worth looking at how much the EPAO charges for the assessment, because as McAfee notes, “there’s a big variation in fees.”

Don’t forget you can negotiate a price with the EPAO for the assessment.

Don’t be swayed by EPAOs with 100% pass rates

“You’ll often find some less well-known EPAOs boasting 100% of their apprentices have magically passed the EPA,” says McAfee. If you come across any too-perfect-to-be-true pass rates, check out the EPAO’s conflict of interest policy, which will guarantee the credibility of their EPA.

Speak to the EPAO and gather as much info as possible

All employers are welcome to contact the EPAO and chat with their staff. You could ask to see mock tests, project topics or questions that crop up in the EPA – all of this can give you a good insight into whether the EPAO is appropriate for your firm.

Why the AAT is a perfect EPAO

“Whenever we recommend the AAT to the employer at the start of the apprenticeship, 100% of the time the employer says ‘yes’,” notes McAfee.

Why? McAfee says it’s “because employers trust the AAT and what it stands for. They also know that if we’re benchmarking our EPA with the AAT, they’ll get a quality assessment. The AAT is the foundation qualification for accounting, and it’s where most accountants begin their careers. It allows the apprentice to be at a level that suits them, or the needs of the business. That’s why we’ve always used the AAT at First Intuition. There are cheaper alternatives, but you don’t get the quality associated with it.”

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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