We must ensure functional skills are fit for the future

Reforms have made FSQs indistinguishable from GCSEs and turned them into a barrier to progress

Reforms have made FSQs indistinguishable from GCSEs and turned them into a barrier to progress

8 Feb 2024, 8:21

Functional Skills qualifications (FSQs) have long been the subject of animated debate across our sector.They were designed to offer second-chance opportunities for those who may have previously not succeeded using traditional educational pathways such as GCSEs. However, reforms to content in 2019, and standstill funding since 2014, have led to a situation where learners increasingly see FSQs as a barrier to progress rather than a help, and providers are finding them unviable to deliver.

FSQs now appear in many ways indistinguishable from English and maths GCSEs, which many young people have already spent 11 years struggling with to no avail. Given these difficulties, providers and employers alike are beginning to require them on entry to apprenticeships to avoid the cost and difficulty of delivering them, with all that implies for reductions in social mobility and equal opportunities.

With the backing of both Gatsby Foundation and Edge Foundation, AELP have brought together an extensive study of both the content and costs of FSQs. Alongside our partners, Warwick University Institute for Employment Research and the Association of Colleges, we conducted a range of interviews, focus groups and deep-dive quantitative analysis of the cost of FSQ delivery, to produce “Spelling It Out, Making It Count”. The report proposes seven recommendations to improve FSQ pass rates whilst maintaining their robustness and differentiation to traditional GCSE examinations.

Our key findings make clear that the non-applied nature of much of the FSQ exams are increasingly no longer in line with their vocational intent, presenting a barrier to learners on vocational and apprenticeship programmes. Moreover, with funding unchanged for nearly a decade, FSQs are simply unviable, and in the current massively constrained fiscal environment, they present a possibly existential threat to many providers who continue to deliver them.

No wonder increasing numbers of apprenticeship providers are instead making them an entry requirement. And this is happening without complaint from employers, who themselves struggle to accommodate study for maths and English under rules that prevent their being classed as off-the-job training.

FSQs no longer serve the purpose for which they were designed

Our work looking at costs of FSQ delivery is, as far as we can tell, some of the first (if not the first) of its kind – a surprising fact in itself. The level of losses being incurred in FSQ delivery is however staggering. Prior to the recent equalisation of funding for FSQs in apprenticeships to the level paid for AEB, losses could range up to £440 per qualification. Even with the move to £724 for all FSQs, we are still looking at average losses of £35-40 per qualification, and that’s before the additional costs of delivering in an apprenticeship setting and an average cost per resit of around £35 are taken into account.

Our findings show that FSQs in their current form and at the newly revised funding rates no longer serve the purpose for which they were designed. We believe the reforms have in fact undermined the intended purpose of FSQs, disadvantaging thousands of young people and adults by diminishing choice of the way they can demonstrate their literacy and numeracy skills.

Our report makes seven recommendations that need urgent consideration and implementation to help to improve this situation:

  1. Ensure the differentiated purpose of functional skills is maintained in practice
  2. Increase exam question contextualisation
  3. Review the structure and spread of Level 2 functional skills maths questions
  4. Promote diverse assessment methods and improve recognition of partial success
  5. Incorporate English and maths components of apprenticeships into the off-the-job apprenticeship training definition
  6. Review the role functional skills qualifications should play in the award of apprenticeships
  7. Uprate funding for functional skills qualifications by at least 10 per cent

It is clear that providers cannot and will not sustain the rate of losses incurred in delivering qualifications that bear increasingly little relevance to the workplace scenarios they were designed to map to.

Post-reform FSQs unhelpfully blur the lines between academic and vocational learning styles, diminishing choice and opportunity for learners and diverging from employer workplace needs. Change is needed, and it is needed now.

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  1. Albert Wright

    This is an ongoing issue that seriously impedes those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds progressing.

    Maths and English competence is less important for many students with great vocational skills.

    Many Premier League footballers and other sport and entertainment celebrities, including actors, would not have succeeded if they had been forced to possess the inappropriate Maths and English qualificatons. Ban the Barriers.

  2. Jim Maguire

    The issue I, and many of my learners, have with reformed level 2 functional maths is that it is too broad a subject for apprentices to study effectively because of their challenging jobs, busy lives and limited amount of study time.

    Perhaps breaking the exam into 3 discrete exams covering number, shape and space and data handling could work. The learners would still be able to show maths ability at the desired level, but it would then become less of a test of memory than it is now.