The change to Functional Skills comes after almost a decade of one approach to literacy and numeracy provision and, on the whole, this change is welcome. For a long time, there has been a groundswell of concern that the Skills for Life strategy became about chasing qualifications and preparing learners for multiple-choice tests rather than developing skills across the whole curriculum.

Many providers and tutors feel that this kind of testing, while effective to a point, is not always a valid measure of whether skills have been consolidated or can be applied in different contexts. Feedback gathered by NIACE from the Adult Pilots for Functional Skills confirms this, highlighting that even learners who have passed Level 2 Adult Literacy national tests are often not confident in writing.

But with change comes challenges. For the current cohort of adult learners who want to progress, there is an issue that the next level of Functional Skills will be more difficult to achieve compared with previous qualifications.

Whilst a more robust system of assessment is welcomed, developing learners’ abilities to pass Functional Skills assessments, particularly for those learners at lower levels, will take longer and be more demanding for them. Most of the challenges reported by the pilots have been about the higher demands of Functional Skills assessments compared with previous qualifications.

Where the real strength in Functional Skills lies is how they recognise that English, maths and ICT are the basis of all learning, and need to be taught in context

This issue may be addressed by developing a unit based curriculum for those with the lowest skills, an approach currently being explored by some awarding organisations. The importance of measuring distance travelled for some learners was flagged in the Skills for Life Review carried out by BIS. This also is being piloted. These are welcome developments to address the needs of learners at entry levels who may struggle to develop the range of skills and independence needed to achieve whole qualifications in Functional Skills.

Encouraging independent learning is critical for Functional Skills learners as this is a skill that will now be tested. Although we want learners to think and work independently, this takes time to achieve.

One pilot provider found that maths learners struggled with the open-ended format of the questions in the assessment and whilst learners were confident enough to work through the first two stages of a scenario, they were not confident enough to carry the scenario through to reach a conclusion, needing much more support along the way.

Where the real strength in Functional Skills lies is how they recognise that English, maths and ICT are the basis of all learning, and need to be taught in context. Subjects are more connected than previously and there is a need to consider the learner ‘holistically’ rather than advising them to progress up the levels in one subject. Learners are taught how to apply skills and to link topics together, enabling a better understanding of how topics relate to each other and perhaps most importantly, link to everyday contexts.

As NIACE Inquiries into both Literacy and Numeracy learning have recommended, learning should be made practical and relevant to the lives of learners, preparing them for life and work. One pilot provider sums it up neatly, by saying that Functional Skills provide a ‘toolbox of skills’ where adults learn to match and use the right tool for the situation.

This is a desirable outcome but we must listen and respond to concerns of learners and practitioners as we make these subtle but significant changes in what we teach and how we assess. The skills remain the same but the complexity and familiarity of the context and the autonomy of the learner in applying these skills are now equally important.

As we move to a new approach for everyone in September, we need to ensure that despite all it achieved there were inequalities in Skills for Life, such as fewer achievements for marginalised learners and those at lower levels, and less progress in numeracy than for literacy. It is vital they are not entrenched or repeated.

David Hughes, chief executive of the National institute of Adult Continuing Education

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