Promoting the positive in Functional Skills

Learners like them, teachers like them, employers like them. This is the message we are hearing from the field. Of course, not all teachers and not all providers are on board, but those that have grasped that the Functional Skills qualifications offer learners a better deal are beginning to develop a sense of excitement. But, there are a number of issues blocking the successful implementation of the strategy.

Ten years after the launch of the Skills for Life strategy, NIACE embarked on its Inquiry into adult numeracy, and subsequently the Inquiry into adult literacy. We were pleased that our Inquiry fed directly into the Department’s own Review of Skills for Life.

One of the major areas of discussion in this closed group was the difficulties with the ‘old’ Skills for Life qualifications and the gradual emergence of the GCSE as the ‘gold standard’ and Functional Skills as the English and Maths element.

Over the past couple of weeks, it has been made clear that enrolments for standalone Skills for Life (Level 1 – Level 2) qualifications, will cease after August 31. New Functional Skills (English and maths) and GCSE equivalents will be the qualifications for adult learners with literacy and numeracy needs, alongside ‘standalone, unitised awards’ which are still being scoped, while Skills for Life Entry Level qualifications will stay in the short term.

Let’s get out there, with some real voices of some real learners and teachers, and promote all the positive aspects of Functional Skills.”

Functional Skills provide a single ladder of achievement from Entry Level to Level 2, for all learners in all sectors. They are a compulsory element in the three qualification routes for young people from 14 to 19; in Diploma and Foundation Learning Tier, and an option to GCSEs, within apprenticeships. They are also offered as stand-alone qualifications at Entry Level, Level 1 and Level 2.

NIACE believes that Functional Skills will support adults to undertake the realistic basic skills demands of everyday life, developing, as we believe they do, the ability to apply skills to other settings. With some more work to address the needs of those learners with the poorest skills, at Entry Level, they will offer better quality literacy and numeracy skills to adults.

Training providers developing their ability to offer Functional Skills within apprenticeships and employers taking on the apprentices tell us that they fit well as an embedded element of vocational courses; the emphasis on transferability was valued by providers.

There are challenges – it may take longer for learners to achieve and Functional Skills will be more challenging for all learners and especially at lower levels. The assessment is more rigorous and includes writing as well as speaking and listening – this will come as very good news to teachers who have been unhappy with the partial nature of the Skills for Life qualifications, with its lack of emphasis on speaking and listening, and on writing.

We cannot ignore the challenges and we are hopeful all the agencies supporting adult learners will work together to make the transition as effective as possible. We need a strategic CPD offer; we need a clear idea of which resources are helpful and have proven worth and impact rather than those that have just been brought (too) hastily to the market to address a perceived need; we need to consider if we require Functional Skills-specific Initial and Diagnostic Assessment tools. And we need clear guidance on how we manage the additional time and resources that delivering Functional Skills will require.

But most of all, the message coming out loud and clear is – why aren’t Functional Skills being sold to employers, providers, teachers and learners?  Let’s get out there, with some real voices of some real learners and teachers, and promote all the positive aspects of Functional Skills.

We recognise that Functional Skills provide learners with the ability to think and act independently at home and in the workplace – but we have to grasp the nettle right now if we really want this to work.


By Carol Taylor

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  1. Aidan Brooks

    An interesting piece Carol.

    I would suggest at this point in time the challenges associated with FS far outweigh the benefits that are claimed here.

    I work with colleges, PTPs and employers and feedback I am receive is one of anxiety and lack of clarity. Only in the last fortnight has there been an announcement that SfL at Entry Levels will continue to be funded – why is this? This is certainly NOT because Entry Level learners were struggling with adapting to FS as you suggest. On the contrary, in comparison to SfL Entry Level achievements were hardly affected – unlike L1/L2 achievements that both saw a large number fall short.

    Awarding bodies are still struggling with developing credible and accessible end assessments and the learning resources in the market are predominantly rehashed SfL/KS resources.

    While colleges who have the greatest capacity to deliver a quality FS provision continue to fall short how and why should we expect an employer to be able to?

    SfL quals offered an excellent route to learning for ESOL learners – is FS a suitable alternative here?

    I will conclude with a question –

    If the department is serious about supporting Work Based Learning, than why are we moving towards a set of qualifications that are complex to deliver, engage with and access in the work place?

    Possibly it is time to get back to basics.