The government has already downgraded Functional Skills more than three years before they are fully replaced in the apprenticeship programme by GCSEs. Roger Francis makes the case for viewing the qualifications as equal again.


Few people would deny that the UK faces a huge skills crisis.

Nearly 50 per cent of the adult working population has the level of maths competency expected of an 11-year-old and probably cannot interpret their own pay packets.

Moreover, a raft of surveys last year from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development placed the UK close to the bottom of global tables for maths, English and science in developed countries.

In those circumstances, and with UK companies constantly reporting an inability to find staff with the relevant skills, it almost seems churlish to criticise a government initiative aimed at addressing the problem.

Yet that is exactly how a wide range of experts across the sector have responded to the governments’ proposal to replace Functional Skills (FS) within the apprenticeship framework with A to C grade GCSEs from 2017.

The government’s position appears to be that it wants GCSEs to be adopted as the “gold standard” and that leaving FS in a similar position would cause confusion and detract from that long-term aim.

So FS, which up until six months ago was positioned as an equal alternative option to GCSEs, has now become a “stepping stone”.

This instant downgrading appears to have taken place without any consultation with the relevant stakeholders and without any statistical analysis of the impact of FS on competency levels.

However, in setting out that strategy, I believe the government has failed to recognise the very real differences between vocational and academic career paths.

FS were developed specifically for people who chose the former. Many of the learners whom we support have already failed their GCSEs in maths and English and achieve the equivalent FS qualifications not because they are easier or because they are merely “stepping stones”, but because they are more relevant to their job roles and to situations they meet in everyday life.

The vast majority of learners on apprenticeship programmes do not need to know about quadratic equations and have an intimate knowledge of the novels of John Steinbeck.

Instead, they need to be able to quickly calculate the value of a 20 per cent discount, to be able to contribute effectively to a team meeting and to deal sympathetically with a customer complaint.

Those are skills which it is almost impossible to develop within the strict confines of an academic qualification.

The government clearly hopes that a revised GCSE will become an aspirational target for young people, but aspirations have to be realistic and achievable as well as challenging and with nearly 50 per cent of learners currently failing to achieve an A to C grade in maths and English, there is a real danger that we will disenfranchise the very people whom we should be supporting and encouraging.

Having already closed off an academic career, we are now telling them that the vocational pathway is no longer an option either unless they can achieve a qualification which they probably consider irrelevant and unobtainable.

My other concern is that FS is being side-lined before any credible evidence has been obtained as to its impact.

Surely we need some thorough research and analysis before effectively ditching a qualification which employers and practitioners alike believe is genuinely raising standards and competency levels?

It was very pleasing to read that the government is listening to employer feedback and re-evaluating the proposed grading scheme for apprenticeships.

I would urge it to adopt a similarly flexible approach on FS and allow employers to set new standards which retain the option of FS or GCSEs.

By all means continue to develop the standards for FS and evaluate their effectiveness, but let’s not consign them to the Museum of Ancient Qualifications when employers, practitioners and experts across the sector are voicing their almost unanimous support.

Instead, let’s re-position FS as the “gold standard” for vocational training. That will surely give us a much better chance of tackling the current crisis and providing employers and learners alike with the skills they so desperately need.


Roger Francis, director, Creative Learning Partners