Functional Skills could have been saved from the qualifications scrapheap with Skills Minister Nick Boles having revealed hopes for them to become “legitimate, valid, respected and admired”. Roger Francis looks at how this might be achieved.
The government’s decision to change its policy on Functional Skills, which was reported in FE Week, will be warmly welcomed across the sector.
It would appear that in Nick Boles we have a Skills Minister who is prepared both to learn from and to listen to the opinions and concerns of a broad cross-section of individuals and organisations within in the vocational training arena.
I was particularly impressed that the Minister seems ready not simply to passively reinstate Functional Skills alongside GCSEs, but wants to actively promote the qualifications.
That being the case, I believe there are four areas he needs to address if Functional Skills are to have a significant impact on the huge skills crisis that we face in the UK.
Firstly, in order to attract quality provision, he needs to ensure that Functional Skills are fairly and adequately funded.
The current system is unduly complicated with different rates for delivering the same qualification to different groups of learners. For example, employers are expected to contribute 50 per cent towards the cost of delivering functional skills within the apprenticeship framework. However in practice, this rarely happens, thereby making delivery of arguably the most challenging component of the frameworks, commercially unviable.
The government is proposing to “fully fund” Functional Skills within the trailblazer programme, but the proposed funding of £471 per outcome is again woefully inadequate, especially compared to the funding available for GCSEs. This situation will have to change.
Secondly, there needs to be an effective campaign to promote Functional Skills within the business community. While companies who run apprenticeship programmes fully understand their value and benefits, the vast majority of employers who are yet to engage with apprenticeships, are often blissfully unaware that the government will fully fund standalone maths and English qualifications.
There needs to be an effective campaign to promote Functional Skills within the business community
Yet, as we have found when working with a number of clients, these standalone programmes can have a significant impact on raising the overall skill levels within an organisation and transform the lives of learners who participate.
Thirdly, the government needs to encourage innovative approaches to the delivery of Functional Skills.
Many of the learners we support regard themselves as failures when it comes to maths and English.
Our first job is often to simply restore their confidence and to persuade them to re-engage in the learning process. You will not achieve that simply by using the same methods which, for whatever reason, have failed before.
We should be looking to use platforms such as mobile with which they are familiar and to incorporate concepts such as collaborative learning and gamification.
But at the same time, technology alone cannot solve the skills crisis.
We need to ensure that practitioners, who provide essential mentoring and coaching, are provided with effective ongoing support and development opportunities.
Finally, I was pleased to see that the Minister intends to ask Ofqual to carry out a rigorous review of Functional Skills.
I have no doubt that the qualifications have already had a significant impact, particularly compared to their predecessors such as Key Skills and Skills for Life. However, there is clearly room for further improvement.
I believe there are opportunities to further embed the qualifications into the new apprenticeship frameworks and we should look at extending the current range of courses through to level three in line with the move towards higher level apprenticeships.
There is also a need to look again at the ICT qualification, which remains the “forgotten” Functional Skill, and understand why uptake of this important programme has been so patchy.
Taken alone, none of these proposals will have a significant impact but as a package, I believe they will provide the basis for ensuring that Functional Skills genuinely become the gold standard for basic skills within the workplace.