With the outlook for Functional Skills very different to just a few months ago, Charlotte Bosworth makes the case for the qualification as a viable alternative to the GCSE.

If you cast your mind back to July and the written ministerial statement about post-16 English and maths, the writing was on the wall for Functional Skills with the seemingly endless march towards GCSEs for all.

But roll on a few months, past a reshuffle and through party conference season and the news is a little more positive.

In recent weeks, in print, in person and on platform, the new Skills Minister Nick Boles has spoken more positively about the importance of Functional Skills and, most critically, about the importance of an alternative for those learners who struggle with the way the GCSE is constructed and assessed. I, for one, greatly welcome this change of approach.

There is no doubt that attaining a minimum level of English and maths skills should be a core priority.

However, there isn’t one fixed route to achieving this goal. I advocate a more holistic approach to gaining these skills.

While direct English and maths teaching works for some learners, many are more likely to achieve these skills when they are learned and absorbed within a context.

When the government was calling for GCSEs for all, I spoke of the need for a vocational modular GCSE alternative that could be offered to those where the traditional GCSE is not the appropriate route to take.

Whether we have a vocational GCSE or Functional Skills, we must ensure that we use the format of assessment that is most appropriate to assess the skills required

Whether we have a vocational GCSE or Functional Skills, we must ensure that we use the format of assessment that is most appropriate to assess the skills required.

Back in 2006, the National Research and Development Centre published a research report that found vocational courses that embedded the delivery of literacy, language and numeracy had more positive outcomes than those programmes that delivered them separately.

Embedded courses had higher retention, higher success rates and higher rates of achievement in literacy and numeracy qualifications.

So why have we been drawn to GCSEs? One perspective, even one voiced by the minister at the FE Week / OCR fringe event at the Conservative Party conference, is that employers understand GCSEs.

I challenge that assertion. The GCSE brand has been in circulation long enough for employers to have heard of it and have a vague appreciation of the skills that the qualification brings.

How many times have you heard someone ask what O-levels a person has? It still happens and we’ve had GCSEs in one form or another since the late 1980s. The issue for Functional Skills is that it is still relatively new and it was introduced following a range of other initiatives that have broadly similar names: basic skills, key skills, core skills, essential skills, etc.

In her correspondence with the Minister, Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey acknowledges that it takes “some years for qualification titles to become understood and trusted”.

On the topic of potential reforms, she refers to that tricky balance between change and stability and suggests that minor reforms could be enacted over a two to three-year period.

I urge caution on the need for reform or re-branding. Functional Skills and other more tailored programmes of English and maths might just need more time, more communication to the general public about their purpose and a full retreat from previous recommendations that GCSE is the only accepted qualification.

The need for good levels of English and maths skills is not just a skills issue, it’s an economic imperative.

The GCSE is, and always will be, an important qualification. However, they do not themselves provide the contextualisation and problem-solving skills that are often required in the workplace. It’s for this reason that Functional Skills is so important. I hope that this government and the government we have from May onwards remembers this.