Functional skills are not fit for the purpose of qualifying apprentices

Functional skills are an off-putting part of the apprentice experience and the whole curriculum needs a complete rethink to put that right, says Susan Pittock

Functional skills are an off-putting part of the apprentice experience and the whole curriculum needs a complete rethink to put that right, says Susan Pittock

12 Mar 2023, 5:00

Apprenticeship completion rates averaged 51.8 per cent for standards in 2020-21 in contrast to a government target of 67 per cent, prompting skills minister, Robert Halfon to say to FE Week last month that “achievement rates are one of my priorities and we’re working very hard to try and improve that”. To do so, he will need to look closely at functional skills.

A significant factor in non-completion is the many thousands of learners who cannot achieve their functional skills, which are a mandatory part of an apprenticeship unless the learner has a grade 4 or above GCSE or an equivalent-level qualification.  The damage of course is really being done to apprentices because they are struggling to get through functional skills; they are failing and leaving, which is disheartening, frustrating and damaging for learners, providers and businesses.

Employers regularly comment that functional skills, as structured, are too in-depth for their current needs. For example, why do chefs need functional skills with the current breath required, which they are never likely to use in their chosen career path? Should we really be requiring them to:

  • use coordinates in 2-D, positive and negative, to specify the positions of points
  • draw and interpret scatter diagrams and recognise positive and negative correlation
  • draw 3-D shapes to include plans and elevations (a new requirement)?

Unless you are regularly using or applying these skills in your everyday working life, you will simply not retain them or commit them to your long-term memory, which leads to higher failure rates in exams and reduces the perceived value for learners and employers. This is not skills for life; it is teaching to a test. This results in learners being demotivated when they cannot see the value of what they are being taught. It also has a negative effect on apprentices’ mental health when they walk away from completing their apprenticeship because of knowledge they know they will never need or use.

This is not skills for life; it is teaching to a test

There needs to be an urgent review of the curriculum for functional skills to ensure that what is required is more relevant to apprentices and the majority of employers. We should also consider ‘fusion skills’ as an alternative. These are competencies, characteristics and tools which individuals need to flourish today are gaining momentum. They include oral communication skills, problem solving, organisational skills, resilience and creativity and arguably equip learners to operate in today’s world much more practically than our current set of functional skills.

Another long-standing issue with functional skills is that the funding is insufficient. As part of an apprenticeship, £471 per learner simply does not cover the base costs of delivery. Once registration and certification costs and a decent platform have been secured and paid for, together with any resit costs, circa £400 remains to cover either English or maths.

This can’t possibly be enough to help someone who has already been let down by the system. It is only sufficient to cover a maximum of four learner visits (not all learners can learn remotely, of course) whereas to cover monthly taught sessions, the cost would be more like £150 per month or £1,800 per annum. This underlines the extent of the current shortfall and why the functional skills qualification is failing.

The government should establish a free online system for every learner who wants to do functional skills, similar to the portal built for “Multiply”, with free access given to all providers.  

There are other complicating factors. Because of the time needed to coach a learner through functional skills, some employers are now starting to prescribe passes in English and maths before taking on learners, and even though we have a serious skills shortage in this country, migrants struggle with functional skills when their underlying skillsets are often excellent.

Clearly it’s time for another wholesale review of functional skills (curriculum, funding and platform) with strong employer input if we want to  improve the apprenticeship brand.

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  1. Totally agree with this article.
    Remember Core Skills, then Key Skills….. now Functional Skills and then a reformed and updated FS standard in recent year (showing my age here!)
    The first 2 were more in line with actual English and maths being embedded /signposted into the ‘vocational setting’ and much easier to deliver and understood by employers/learners as they could see relevance in day to day skills. I remember designing tasks and problem solving activities mapped into the CS / KS qualification. The tasks were interactive and relevant to the workplace. Then came functional skills….and lets be honest they are more like GCSEs than their predecessors – again ‘reforms’ missing the point of increasing English and math skills in the workplace and making them more academically aligned with GCSE. I don’t know what it is about this countries educational obsession with pigeon holing between academic routes and vocational routes but still insisting on an academic approach to English and maths in apprenticeships! One size does not fit all and when you add in the insulting funding band for FS delivery it beggars belief! I don’t know one provider who could say they do not run FS at a loss, but need to take the hit on the funding because they are not going to achieve the apprenticeship success rates without it!

    • Chantal JB

      Completely agree. I’m a functional skills tutor and feel exactly the same way. The content is not designed for every day skills that learners will use. It has become far too hard since the reform and the addition of yet more difficult content which is rarely used

  2. Peter B

    This article is spot on. Functional Skills has been in need of reform since the last reform in 2019! If only the powers that be would involve the teachers who actually deliver functional skills and not just the employers and administrators. The sensible teachers amongst us know that the curriculum needs root and branch streamlining.

  3. Roddy Christie

    Completely agree with this. As an ITP we spend an enormous amount of time on functional a skills often for people who have come from overseas, but whose quals aren’t recognised or for people who have lost the records of their GCSEs. In both cases, most of our learners have degrees which have requîtes a high level of literacy and numeracy, but which are not accepted.

    The system lacks flexibility and nuance resulting in a huge amount of waste and ultimately withdrawals from learning the core subject they enrolled for. It seems to be laziness that the rules surrounding FS have not been reviewed as in many cases their little educational justification for their delivery.

  4. Adrian Arnold-Smith

    I believe that the functional skills syllabus provides an acceptable level of mathematical skills necessary to function effectively as an ambitious citizen whether in the home or in the workplace. Let’s just take the example of the chefs, assuming they can enjoy lifetime’s employment in that occupation some may, one day, wish to open their own restaurant. Hopefully, the budgeting and best-buy skills that have been learned will enable them to manage profitably. Also, some may wish to extend their restaurants when, in such case, appreciation of plans and scale-diagrams would be useful. Perhaps, they may need a loan from the bank in which case a well-constructed business plan presenting information in the form of charts and graphs containing may help ‘get a result’.

    There’s a lot of criticism of FS but i think the maths syllabus is OK. However, the FS Maths pass-mark of around 65% is absurdly high. Why not have pass, credit and distinction grades, with around 45% for the ‘pass’?

    • Richard Charles Swires

      Hi, has anyone managed to get a FS exemption after the 8 week cut-off period, for an Apprentice who has EHCP and who has been identified as having barriers to one of the FS later in the programme?

    • Jim Maguire

      My issue with reformed functional maths is the breadth of topics the learners have to know, Level 2 functional maths is around 75% of a foundation GCSE, it’s just far too much information for most learners to understand, revise and memorise for the exam.

      My suggestion would be to break the exam into 3 parts, much as functional English is. Perhaps a Number exam, a Measure Shape and Space exam and a Data Handling exam, evenly spread over the duration of the course.

      Oh, and get rid of the non calculator paper. It’s actually embarrassing, for everyone concerned, having to teach primary school maths to adults, especially when everyone carries a calculator in their pocket making it totally unnecessary.

  5. Loretta Finch

    I agree FS need to be looked at for a few reasons.

    Apprentices are not just young people anymore. Many people do not have their certificates or undertook their education outside of the UK, and their certificates (should they have them, are not accepted)

    Many apprentices may have been through Higher Education, but this is not considered.

    FS are aimed a those who need to up skills post education – the average age of an apprentice these days is 35, so the current need for FS in all standards needs to be reviewed; having no flexibility in exceptions is very frustrating to many, and the content is more like a GCSE is very off-putting to many – this needs to be changed.