New digital functional skills qual: warning sounded on SEND exclusion

Learners with special educational needs could be locked out by the new course's subject content

Learners with special educational needs could be locked out by the new course's subject content


Brand new digital functional skills qualifications have already generated error messages, after the government warned special educational needs learners could be excluded from the “essential” courses.

Skills minister Alex Burghart last week heralded the launch of new subject content for the reformed entry-level and level 1 qualifications, following a consultation on the content in 2019. The old digital functional skills qualifications were shut down in July 2021.

However, an equalities impact assessment released alongside the consultation revealed the “design and delivery of digital FSQ assessments has the potential to negatively impact on learners with learning difficulties and disabilities or special educational needs”.

These learners “make up a significant proportion of enrolments on existing basic digital qualifications,” the assessment warns.

But it goes on to state officials believe: “We cannot change the subject content to the extent that assessment would not pose any potential barriers to learners with special educational needs.”

This is to ensure the qualifications can command the “full confidence” of learners, providers and employers, and to ensure “comparability across different awarding organisations and individuals”.

The need for digital FSQ subject content to reflect the “vast majority” of the skills government believes people will need for work, study and life “outweigh the need to ensure all learners can achieve a digital FSQ,” the assessment continues.

‘Essential’ that DfE ensure there are no barriers to digital skills

This is despite a new legal entitlement, introduced in August 2020, which entitled adults with little to no digital skills to a fully funded digital qualifications at entry level and level 1, on top of existing entitlements to English and maths training.

Respondents to the consultation had raised their concerns with the DfE about whether the subject content would be accessible for special educational needs learners.

After being shown the impact assessment by FE Week, Zoe Spilberg, head of education for BCS The Chartered Institute for IT, said “ensuring there are no barriers to participation in functional skills qualifications is essential”.

“Computing education and digital skills courses should be accessible by design and with the right support in place to meet the needs of every learner,” she added.

Fil McIntyre, manager of specialist provider network Natspec’s TechAbility assistive technology support service, said the organisation believes digital FSQs “should be as accessible as possible and that greater flexibility should be integrated into their design”.

He said it was “often the design of the content which can create an accessibility issue, asking learners to demonstrate a skill they would never be able to perform”.

‘Too many adults lack the know-how,’ says Burghart

Launching the new subject content on Friday, Alex Burghart said the Department for Education had reformed “essential digital skills so more adults will have the confidence and knowledge they need”.

In its consultation response, the department cited evidence from Lloyds Bank that one in five adults lack essential digital skills.

Alex Burghart

“From sending emails, to keeping our data safe online, digital skills are vital for
navigating our everyday lives and getting on in work, but too many adults still lack the know-how,” said Burghart.

In addition to new digital functional skills qualifications, which are set to be rolled out in 2023, new essential digital skills qualifications (EDSQs) launched alongside the implementation of the digital skills entitlement in August 2020.

These replaced all low-level IT courses, which had been studied by over 100,000 people a year.

FE Week reported last July how just 270 people had achieved an essential digital skills qualification by June 2021, with the slow start having been blamed on Covid-19.

DfE insists SEND learners can be supported to take courses

A DfE spokesperson insisted learners with special educational needs are “not prevented” from taking digital FSQs, as “support is available through the adult education budget to meet the cost of putting in place a reasonable adjustment for individuals with an identified LDD to achieve their learning goal”.

Awarding organisations must make reasonable adjustments for their qualifications under the 2010 Equality Act, the spokesperson added, and must have “clear arrangements in place” and made public for such adjustments under Ofqual rules.

Awarding body Pearson, which took part in the consultation, told FE Week it makes every effort to make specifications and assessments accessible to all learners as far as possible.

But, the DfE spokesperson said, if a digital FSQ was “not appropriate” for a learner, they can also take one of the EDSQs.

The consultation opened on May 16, 2019 and closed on July 11, 2019, but the release of the results was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, the DfE said.

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