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.
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.