Take-up of the government’s flagship free digital skills qualifications, which will replace all low-level IT courses studied annually by over 100,000 people from next month, flopped in their first year.

Announced five years ago and finally launched last August as a free “entitlement” alongside English and math courses, just 270 people had achieved an Essential Digital Skills Qualification (EDSQ) by June 2021.

The new Ofqual-regulated qualification was developed by consultants on behalf of the government, is available at entry level and level 1 and typically takes a few weeks to complete. Only one awarding body, Gateway Qualifications, has so far issued certificates.

Colleges and training providers that spoke to FE Week said EDSQs are best delivered face-to-face, especially for learners who lack very basic digital skills, and blamed Covid restrictions for the slow start.

In many cases they have chosen to continue delivering the IT course that will have funding approval removed from August, with one college saying they are better for remote learning.

But many also complained that most of the EDSQs were not made available at the start of the current academic year, which meant they could not plan them into the curriculum.

Only Gateway Qualifications received sign-off from Ofqual by August 2020 for their EDSQ to be delivered. Seven other awarding bodies have eventually received sign-off but at different points throughout the year. They claim they are seeing some colleges and providers starting to deliver the qualifications this term.

The Department for Education said no targets had been set for the number of people taking the qualifications.

Colleges, providers, awarding bodies and the DfE all expect starts to increase substantially from September.


‘Covid-19 hampered the introduction of these qualifications’

A spokesperson for Bedford College Group, which historically delivers high numbers of IT courses to adults, said: “We didn’t offer EDSQ this year because we felt that ITQs for IT users fitted the needs of our learners better, as it covers more Microsoft Office applications.

“We are planning to offer the qualifications in the next academic year and are anticipating that over 300 learners will enrol.”

Highbury College explained: “The introduction of these qualifications has been hampered by Covid-19 disruption and the fact that most of the EDSQs were not available from the start of the 2020/21 academic year.

“We have plans, subject to the impact of any further disruption, to start delivery this summer.”

Another, Brockenhurst College, told FE Week it has chosen not to deliver EDSQs so far because it was not prepared to launch a new qualification during a pandemic. The qualifications are, however, on their radar and the college plans to deliver them in 2021/22.

The DfE has pushed to make digital skills as important as English and maths skills, going so far as to enshrine the entitlement to EDSQs in law, with the 2017 Digital Economy Act.

An unweighted base rate of £300 is paid by the department for each of the qualifications, which can be either entry level or level 1, funded from the adult education budget.

Skills that adults learn on the course includes creating and editing documents, how to use emails and video calls, completing online forms and purchasing items, and resolving simple technical issues with software and hardware.

But those providers that have managed to begin delivery have sung the praises of the EDSQs, citing cases of homeless people developing skills for employment, and retirees becoming apt with computers to complete day-to-day activities.


‘I’m definitely less terrified now and I do have more confidence’

One adult to benefit from the course is Martin Shephard, aged 26. He was until recently homeless, suffered with a drug addiction and poor mental health. He chose to take his EDSQ with J and K Training in Middlesbrough.

“I think I probably value this course more than most. Doors and opportunities have mostly been locked to me, but now I’m able to see that with the right teaching in the right environment, I can do things – it’s been a bit of an eye opener,” said Martin.

Sisters Ruth Smith (pictured above right) and Catherine Allen (picutured above left), who are both retired and in their 60s, took their EDSQ with Middlesbrough College.

While both were “anxious” about doing the course, Catherine, a retired nurse, explained that because they both now volunteer for a charity they wanted to “grasp the nettle” and upskill.

Ruth added: “This course has been a great experience, I’m definitely less terrified now and I do have more confidence. I’ve learnt that computers are logical, that I shouldn’t overthink things and I’m brave enough to experiment.”

Lee Morton, aged 38, also took the course at Middlesbrough College. She said: “My aim was to improve on knowledge that I use in my everyday workplace and learn new skills to help me improve what I do. To be honest, the course proved valuable straight away. It’s helping me work more efficiently and it’s helping me on my own personal journey.”


‘It has been challenging this year to deliver EDSQs at volume’

Delivery hasn’t been plain sailing for colleges and providers, however.

Joanne Dye, deputy director of adult, community and ESOL at Leeds City College, said: “It has been challenging this year to deliver EDSQs at volume, due to the Covid pandemic and related lockdowns and restrictions.

“This has affected adult learners in many ways, in particular being able to attend face-to-face support which many of our adult learners prefer, especially those with lower levels of digital skills.

“We have, however, delivered to cohorts remotely, providing support through the loan of digital equipment and the means to get connected to the internet.”

When asked about the sluggish switch to EDSQs, a DfE spokesperson said: “Now more than ever, it is vital more adults have the opportunity to learn and develop the digital skills they need to thrive in everyday life and work.

“That’s why we’ve introduced a new generation of essential digital skills qualifications, and removing approval for funding for existing ICT qualifications, which are based on out-of-date standards that do not reflect the world we live in.

“The pandemic delayed rollout and take-up of EDSQs. We expect take-up to increase in the next academic year.”


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  1. Richard Heath

    It may be true that “The DfE has pushed to make digital skills as important as English and maths skills”. However, whilst it is undeniable that Covid and the huge delays in awarding body approval for the qualifications have had a major impact, they are not the only problems. Others include:

    Funding rates: we have previously delivered an Entry Level IT qualification at 45glh with an AEB funding rate of £450. The new qualification has the same notional glh (in practice it will take longer to deliver), but only two thirds of the funding.

    Defunding of other qualifications: it’s true that EDSQ is a welcome update in terms of basic digital skills required today, but removing funding from all other IT qualifications creates a huge hole. Learners also need to learn skills in using standard workplace applications like word processing and spreadsheets. How will that learning by funded and accredited? Most approved AOs are specifying a prerequisite level of IT skills before learners undertake the Entry Level qualification. For learners without those pre-existing skills, how will that learning be funded?

    Lack of awareness: there has been, to the best of my knowledge, absolutely no government-sponsored campaign to raise awareness of the new digital skills entitlement.

    The pandemic has demonstrated very clearly why digital skills are essential. The current arrangements make it almost inevitable that the EDSQ will be a massively missed opportunity to address that.