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Graeme's Design Narrative - Testing Relationships

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Graeme Arnott
28 March 2013


I am the Training Officer for a final year apprentice electrician who failed to pass the ‘Inspection and Testing of an Electrical Installation’  section in his Final Integrated Competence Assessment.  (FICA is the assessment that all apprentice electricians in Scotland need to pass to upgrade to the role of electrician).  My role was

  1. to provide feedback on the apprentice’s performance to the apprentice and his employer

  2. to liaise with the apprentice on what skills he needs to develop prior to his re-sit

  3. to arrange with the employer the means by which the apprentice might gain the skills he needs

  4. to arrange an appropriate re-sit date that suits both the apprentice and the employer


I met with the employer and the apprentice at an address where they were working together.  This is the normal arrangement which causes minimal disruption to the employer’s business.  The location transpired to be the new house of a friend of the employer.  The employer was switching his interactions between me and his apprentice, and his friends.

Under normal circumstances I will have met with the apprentice and employer on numerous occasions over the apprenticeship but on this occasion I have only met the employer once, and the apprentice on two occasions before this meeting.  I have only recently taken over this area and don’t really have a relationship with either of them.  The apprentice has been in employment with this contractor for over four years,  This timing turned out to be significant.

Initially they were both very cautious about discussing the situation.  I suspected this would be the case from the context that I describe below.  However there was something more that I didn’t understand and whilst the employer was disappointed that the apprentice had failed a section of FICA there was an awkwardness about their personal  interaction that I didn’t understand.  I thought that the apprentice was embarrassed, and that because they both didn’t really know me they were being over cautious.  This was not so, and only became apparent later.


I was trying to achieve a number of solutions and outcomes to this situation.

  1. I was trying to provide a quality of service of support to both the employer and the apprentice.  With regard to the employer this is somewhat mercenary in the hope that the employer will recruit a new apprentice when his current one completes the course.  Secondly, the employer had already made the claim to me in an earlier telephone conversation that his apprentice had been placed under undue pressure by a member of the test centre staff and was considering making a complaint.  I was aware that both the employer and the apprentice were unhappy at the (alleged) performance of my colleague.

  2. Outwith the diplomacy of the above I was trying to facilitate a number aspects of learning. The first was learning on my part.  I wanted to identify whether the apprentice had sufficient knowledge and understanding about the subject of  inspection & testing (the failed section) that might make their claim of undue pressure justifiable.

  3. The second learning objective that I was trying to achieve was one that

  4. ensured that the apprentice gained sufficient on-site training in the inspection & testing subject area so that he would

    1. be in a position to pass his re-sit

    2. be in a position to perform inspection & testing as part of his role as an electrician.

It’s a generally held belief in my workplace that the most appropriate place to learn is in the authentic workplace.  I arrived at this location and situation with this assumption.

Before arriving on site I had a clear idea of what would be successful outcomes.  These were

  1. that the employer and the apprentice were content with the service my employer provides;

  2. that the apprentice would be informed about his performance at FICA; and

  3. that training would be agreed upon that would make possible 4a and 4b

As the meeting progressed these outcomes it became increasingly obvious that these aims were unlikely to be met.  It was only after the meeting that I understood why.


I started by reviewing the diagnostic report of the apprentices first attempt at FICA.  This allowed me to get oral testimony of what the apprentice had done during the assessment.  This was firstly designed to allow me to guage the apprentice’s  overall knowledge about the subject and secondly to suggest areas where he might have lost marks during the assessment.

It was quickly clear that the apprentice knew very little about one of the tests in question (the second out of 6 in total).  His employer, witnessing his confusion, tried to assist by reminding the apprentice about what the test entailed.  Unfortunately it was clear that the employer knew just as little about the test in question as his unfortunate apprentice.

It was when I had to correct the employer that he himself admitted that he had trouble understanding the topic of inspection and testing.  This effectively put the sand in the engine of my learning plan, and  I was now making it up as I went along.  I suggested that I approach the local college with a view to them providing the apprentice with some training.  The employer was only happy with this arrangement when I agreed that we would fund the training.

When we got onto the topic of when a re-sit could take place the employer told me that it had to take place before a certain date the following month to ensure that he would be able to claim funding should the apprentice be successful.  I was unaware of this necessity and this placed an unexpected time-limit on the apprentice’s college supported training.

With this new on-the-hoof plan agreed I took my leave of the meeting and the apprentice walked me back to my car which was parked at the other end of the street.  It was at this point that the apprentice told me that he has never received any on-site training on this subject because the employer 'doesn’t have a clue' about electrical testing.  The apprentice also told me that the previous Training Officer had been aware of this and had numerous discussions about this with the employer. The apprentice had assumed that I knew this.


  • An expected outcome was that the apprentice would gain the training to prepare him for his FICA resit.  The outcome wasn’t achieved in the way I had planned though

  • Whilst I think that it is possible that the college training will provide the apprentice with the training to perform well in his resit, i suspect that there is very little chance that I will meet the objective to allow the apprentice to perform inspection & testing as part of his future role as an electrician.

  • An  unexpected outcome was that my employer was now going to have to pay for this additional college training and which, if successful, will result in the employer receiving a £1000 grant.

  • I had hoped that I would leave the meeting with the complaint possibility becalmed and the good name of my employer restored. Instead as the meeting went on I began to feel like a character in a Pinter play who allows suppressed tensions to become manifest.


I was very pleased to read recently that John Seely Brown described learning as messy.  This messiness isn’t just down to the difficulties of putting something as complex as learning into words but includes an understanding that learning involves financial motivations, personal tensions and resentments.

The assumed expectation in a Community of Practice, in which an apprentice moves from the periphary to full membership of a discourse, is that the gatekeeper is sufficiently competent to be a gatekeeper.  This situation has caused me to reflect on the value of a discourse that can allow the gatekeeper to be without competence.

The situation has also shaken my confidence in the value of assuming that the workplace is the site of authentic learning.  Since, in this situation, the FICA assessment itself takes place in the inauthentic setting of a test centre then perhaps the ‘inauthentic’ setting of a college workshop is actually the most authentic place to learn.

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Compendium Learning Design Activity

Compendium Learning Design Activity

added by Graeme Arnott


Eileen Vard
10:24pm 13 April 2013

This is a very well written and interesting narrative, a real story!  I like the name you gave it also, very apt.

This sounds like a challenging job and needs quick thinking, especially as the outcome you were hoping to achieve became less and less likely as time went on.  Difficult also in that any future apprentice this employer might take on is likely to lack competence in this area of inspection and testing also.  Could anything be done to ensure the employer would upskill himself in this knowledge area?

Maybe procedures will have to be drawn up within your organisation that can help assessors like yourself to deal with situations such as this, so you will all be using the same appoach and also to ensure there would be a record of the interactions for any one taking over to see.



Graeme Arnott
10:24am 15 April 2013

Hello Eileen,

Thank you for taking the time to comment. From what I can gather the employer has recently been on a day's course on this topic (I like your phrase 'knowledge area') but that he came away from it none the wiser.  He told me that it was more of a box-ticking exercise than a serious attempt to address a knowledge deficit, which might or might not be true. So he is conscious of his lack of knowledge in this area, but I suspect that he's also concerned that in admitting it too openly he runs the risk of losing face within the community.  Something needs to be done, but at the moment I'm not sure what that something is.

I agree entirely, and I thought CompendiumLD offered a really good way for my employer and my colleagues to map out procedures for dealing with the type of situations we face, and for reflecting on those procedures.  My line manager was taken by the idea but the silence from my colleagues suggests that they see it as additional admin.
Best Wishes,

Yishay Mor
5:11pm 22 May 2014

Hi Graeme,

Very good narrative indeed. What I miss is a bit more "design": how much did you plan the interaction with the apprentice and the employer in advance, and how much did you play it by ear? What are your stratagies for interacting with apprentice and the employer that allowed you to successfully identify the root cause of the problem? If you were training a novice to do your job - how would you brief them before the meeting?



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