Ofqual: Functional skills exams ‘not too challenging’

Regulators are investigating 'potential issue' with maths problem solving questions

Regulators are investigating 'potential issue' with maths problem solving questions

29 Jan 2024, 18:11

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Functional skills assessments are not as difficult as people think, despite low pass rates, exams regulator Ofqual has said. 

An evaluation of functional skills (FSQs) assessments was conducted after concerns were raised that FSQ exams were “too academic” and “challenging” for students who were unable to pass GCSEs. 

Ofqual concluded there was no “need for a change to the overall approach to assessment” and deemed “the level of demand in the reformed assessments appears to be appropriate”.

In a report published today, Ofqual acknowledged other complications that might have negatively impacted pass rates, particularly in maths, and given teachers and providers and providers the impression the reformed assessments were harder to pass. 

Reformed functional skills qualifications launched in 2019 with revised content and assessment requirements. The aim was to give the qualifications greater credibility with employers.

Functional skills pass rates currently sit at around 75 per cent, down from 84 per cent before the pandemic and before the reformed qualifications were introduced. 

It comes as the Association of Employment and Learning Providers published their own report suggesting underfunding of FSQs has led to them becoming financially unviable for training providers.

Ofqual explained that comparing pass rates pre- and post-reform is problematic because of “changes over time in the types of students” taking FSQs, and pointed to centre assessed grades during the pandemic leading to “variability” in students’ results.

Around a third of students and teachers who took part in the evaluation said they thought FSQ pass rates were lower than before, particularly in maths, because the qualifications are more difficult to pass. 

However Ofqual judged the demand in the reformed assessments “to be appropriate” against the content set out by the DfE.

But the exam body acknowledged “potential contributing factors” that might explain why students have been struggling. 

It said changes made by DfE included moving some content down a level, which means level 2 questions might now appear in level 1 of students’ assessments. 

Regulators indicated too that there might not have been adequate time for learning providers to have “become familiar with the changes to the qualifications, particularly in light of the disruption arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.” 

A problem with problem-solving

The report also said: “Ofqual has also identified a potential issue specific to level 1 and 2 maths. 

“This relates to the assessment of problem-solving. When reviewing papers as part of the evaluation, Ofqual found that awarding organisations’ approaches to problem-solving questions may have contributed to an additional reading load. 

“It may also have led to more questions being based around a context than necessary. Both of these may have contributed to stakeholder feedback that some students found it difficult to understand the questions.”

Ofqual has promised more research into FSQs and how exams are set out and assessed. 

“Where the evaluation has identified issues with awarding organisations’ approaches, Ofqual will require that these are addressed,” the report said. 

Further reviews by Ofqual on the delivery of assessment questions, with new research into both English and maths FSQs are on the way. 

The exam body added it will “consider stakeholder feedback” on making adjustments to the qualifications overall “with a view to improving their practice.”

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One comment

  1. Helen Small

    Most of the students I teach are really struggling with the 2019 variant. There are too many topics, I have 4 days to teach the topics. My students are apprentices coming in with Grade 2, the non calculator paper is a nightmare, there simply not enough time to teach long multiplication/division, things they should have learnt in primary school. It is also very difficult to explain why they have to do it considering they all have phones. Trying to justify the relevance of probability, scatter diagrams, estimated mean and coordinates is stretching my ability to find relevance for the apprentices!