With functional skills now in place, providers should be taking the opportunity to make sure they are recruiting with integrity from the outset, says Runway Training’s Oliver Trailor.

So the time has finally arrived — Key Skills and Skills For Life have finally gone.

For many, the introduction of a qualification that will serve to improve learners’ maths, English and ICT skills with a robust final assessment is long overdue.

However, for some providers the impending introduction of functional skills has felt like the sword of Damocles hanging over them.

The functional skills system undoubtedly brings challenges for colleges and training providers alike.

While previous contributors to FE Week have written about the challenges with funding, timescales and delivery models, I feel little attention has been paid to an area in which so many providers fall down, that of initial and diagnostic assessment.

Assessment for assessment’s sake appears to be the view of many. I understand many FE colleges carry out initial assessments en masse in August or September induction day.

This involves several hours’ queuing and form-filling, with the poor learner being herded along a corridor, plonked in front of a computer screen or given paper to complete. The purpose of the assessment is often not explained and the result not discussed.

In some ways, they are the more fortunate learners, as colleagues generally use purpose-built initial and diagnostic products.

Having spent part of the summer working with training providers to upskill their staff for functional skills delivery, I was shocked to discover the endless number of initial assessment methods being used.

Past papers, outdated multiple choice questionnaires, direct questioning and basic skills assessments are all in use and in my view very inadequate methods. Given the importance of determining the learners’ level of skill and their development needs we should be looking for a comprehensive assessment.

Skills Funding Agency rules for 2012/13 state, providers must, “undertake a robust initial assessment to determine the level at which the individual is currently operating”. Furthermore they say that, “the tools must be administered by suitably qualified individuals”.

So why then, does there appear to be a blatant disregard for the need for an effective initial assessment — one that establishes a learner’s strengths and weaknesses, takes in to account previous achievements and builds an accurate spikey profile?

The time and cost of this important aspect of learners’ development appears to be the most common factor highlighted by providers. With so much to fit it in, initial assessment has become just another box-ticking exercise and if it can be completed in 10 minutes then all the better.

How can we expect to cater for our learners when we don’t know where they are starting from? Can we really afford not to?

Furthermore for many providers, particularly those working with apprentices, recruitment has become a numbers game, with sales teams faced with monthly targets. Given the importance of framework completion you would hope providers will recruit with more integrity, as the functional skills are seemingly more challenging.

Not getting learners to complete a proper initial assessment, thus establishing whether they were able to cope with the demands of the framework, is surely going to lead to many in learning not completing.

Undoubtedly, a robust initial assessment session that establishes at what level a learner is working has a financial and resource cost. However, there are numerous resources and many suitable off-the-shelf products available at a reasonable price.

Consider this — if learners aren’t suitable for the programme, is it not better to establish this at interview, rather than three or four months into an apprenticeship?

If you are not using an effective initial assessment, then now is the time to consider a strategy for the benefit of your completion rate and bottom line, but far more importantly for the sake of your learners.