The big conversations in FE at the moment are all around functional skills. Most providers are positive about the qualifications, and arguably they are more rigorous than the key skills qualifications they have replaced.

Every year, the CBI bemoans the English education system – employers keep telling us that young people are leaving school with arms full of GCSEs, but they can’t function in the areas that employers need.

Universities often echo these concerns around A-level results’ time, saying that with the “amount of top grades awarded to students, they can’t tell the best from the rest”, so GCSE results come into play again.

“Functional skills have to be taught. They are not course-specific, they are totally generic

It seems both sides are searching for something different to GCSEs; could functional skills be the missing piece of the puzzle? Will the revised GCSEs, which now include “functionality”, improve the situation? That remains to be seen.

Whilst most providers are positive about functional skills, colleges, private training providers and employers are worried that they are unable to get learners through.

Time, it seems is the great enemy. Gone are the quick multiple-choice questions at levels 1 and 2 that could be retaken, time and again. Room for guesswork has been eradicated.

Functional skills have to be taught. They are not course-specific, they are totally generic. And they are not portfolio-based either. They are taken under controlled conditions and competency cannot be demonstrated through activities related to students’ day-to-day vocational experiences.

They are particularly challenging to fit into apprenticeships, especially if a student only has one day a week at college, and during that time is learning the technical and underpinning knowledge to support their apprenticeship. Now they have to study maths and English too.

It’s a bit of an anomaly, but we have found that younger students, who have achieved their GCSEs in English and maths, are not necessarily able to pass their level 2 functional skills, without additional tuition.

The main reasons for this seem to be that a skills assessment has questions that are all at the same level and require the learner to work through open, often unstructured problems, drawing on a range of information to reach a conclusion. Decision-making and providing justifications for choices are key elements too.

The Wolf report tells us that students should achieve GCSEs at grade C or above in maths and English and must continue to study the subjects up to the age of 18, although functional skills are allowed as a means to support the learner to progress towards this goal. But how often do students who resit their GCSEs show significant improvement, and how disheartening is it to resit time and time again?

Analysis of our results shows that the older the student, the better their results in functional skills. This may be due to their life experiences; functional skills rely on the student’s ability to solve problems and these are skills that we learn through experience.

These are the skills employers really want, but are providers ready to deliver? We’re already working with a number of apprenticeship providers as they transfer from key to functional skills, including centres that deliver apprenticeships for the Army and Royal Navy, large training providers that deliver across the country and small training providers who need significant support.

Change for change sake in the FE sector is something that we’ve all grappled with, and it could be easy to see functional skills as just another “change”. But they are here to stay and we can help.

We have recently developed new qualifications that will enable providers to concentrate on filling gaps in knowledge in maths or English skills; these will be available shortly.

Functional skills are a big change, but the way I see it they bring three major benefits:

1. Functional skills will improve the quality of teaching, they will have to, otherwise students will not pass.
2. They will help to improve the reputation of the FE sector; it will be seen as providing the qualifications that employers are really looking for – qualifications that prove a student has the English and maths skills for the workplace.
3. Learners from the FE sector will be better prepared for the world of work.


Graham Hasting-Evans, chief executive of NOCN