Where is the fun in functional skills?

The big conversations in FE at the moment are all around functional skills. Most providers are positive about the qualifications, and arguably they are more rigorous than the key skills qualifications they have replaced.

Every year, the CBI bemoans the English education system – employers keep telling us that young people are leaving school with arms full of GCSEs, but they can’t function in the areas that employers need.

Universities often echo these concerns around A-level results’ time, saying that with the “amount of top grades awarded to students, they can’t tell the best from the rest”, so GCSE results come into play again.

“Functional skills have to be taught. They are not course-specific, they are totally generic

It seems both sides are searching for something different to GCSEs; could functional skills be the missing piece of the puzzle? Will the revised GCSEs, which now include “functionality”, improve the situation? That remains to be seen.

Whilst most providers are positive about functional skills, colleges, private training providers and employers are worried that they are unable to get learners through.

Time, it seems is the great enemy. Gone are the quick multiple-choice questions at levels 1 and 2 that could be retaken, time and again. Room for guesswork has been eradicated.

Functional skills have to be taught. They are not course-specific, they are totally generic. And they are not portfolio-based either. They are taken under controlled conditions and competency cannot be demonstrated through activities related to students’ day-to-day vocational experiences.

They are particularly challenging to fit into apprenticeships, especially if a student only has one day a week at college, and during that time is learning the technical and underpinning knowledge to support their apprenticeship. Now they have to study maths and English too.

It’s a bit of an anomaly, but we have found that younger students, who have achieved their GCSEs in English and maths, are not necessarily able to pass their level 2 functional skills, without additional tuition.

The main reasons for this seem to be that a skills assessment has questions that are all at the same level and require the learner to work through open, often unstructured problems, drawing on a range of information to reach a conclusion. Decision-making and providing justifications for choices are key elements too.

The Wolf report tells us that students should achieve GCSEs at grade C or above in maths and English and must continue to study the subjects up to the age of 18, although functional skills are allowed as a means to support the learner to progress towards this goal. But how often do students who resit their GCSEs show significant improvement, and how disheartening is it to resit time and time again?

Analysis of our results shows that the older the student, the better their results in functional skills. This may be due to their life experiences; functional skills rely on the student’s ability to solve problems and these are skills that we learn through experience.

These are the skills employers really want, but are providers ready to deliver? We’re already working with a number of apprenticeship providers as they transfer from key to functional skills, including centres that deliver apprenticeships for the Army and Royal Navy, large training providers that deliver across the country and small training providers who need significant support.

Change for change sake in the FE sector is something that we’ve all grappled with, and it could be easy to see functional skills as just another “change”. But they are here to stay and we can help.

We have recently developed new qualifications that will enable providers to concentrate on filling gaps in knowledge in maths or English skills; these will be available shortly.

Functional skills are a big change, but the way I see it they bring three major benefits:

1. Functional skills will improve the quality of teaching, they will have to, otherwise students will not pass.
2. They will help to improve the reputation of the FE sector; it will be seen as providing the qualifications that employers are really looking for – qualifications that prove a student has the English and maths skills for the workplace.
3. Learners from the FE sector will be better prepared for the world of work.


Graham Hasting-Evans, chief executive of NOCN

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  1. Hi Graham, some great points there, especially around the benefits that Functional Skills will bring and I agree that time is an issue, as we move to a qualification involving real teaching and learning, rather than just “a little bit of input”.

    Certainly Alison Wolf seemed to not recognise the importance of e-learning in her report. But with limited contact time, and so much to get through, as you point out, using resources that are accessible outside of the classroom is a fantastic way for learners to develop their skills.

    I’d advise any provider to look at ways in which they can enhance their provision through the use of e-learning and provide their learners with every chance to practice and develop their skills.

  2. Excellent article Graham and I agree with Oliver that eLearning has a key role to play in the successful delivery of Functional Skills. However, whilst it provides an excellent route for delivering underpinning knowledge, I do not believe that on its own, it can provide the additional “functionality” required to enable learners to adapt their skills to different situations.

    At Mindleaders, we have developed a highly successful distance-learning solution for Functional Skills which uses our own specially designed eLearning programme at it core but then adds on an e-Portolfio which tracks learner progress through a series of tasks and projects designed to develop functionality and learner confidence in their new skills. Learners also receive regular online and phone feedback from our team of Functional Skills specialists.

    We have been running this programme for the last 18 months and have achieved high first-time pass rates (around 90%) at both Level 1&2 and completion times averaging 12 weeks. Morevoer, learners really seem to enjoy the challenge of Functional Skills and feel that what they are learning is valuable, something that could rarely be said about Key Skills.

    I have seen no evidence whatsoever that Functional Skills will have a negative impact on Apprenticeship completion rates. On the contrary, I am convinved that it will add significantly to the value and quality of these qualifications

  3. I teach FS English and GCSE English in FE. I agree with you that FS is a fantastic curriculum to teach because I can use resources and methods that build a bridge between skills taught in my class and a student’s broader cultural and vocational knowing. Making English A) relevant and useful to a student and B) unhitching FS English from a student’s experience of English as purely academic or ‘authorised English knowing’ and tying it firmly into daily life and cultural relevance makes FS a class that is flexible and fun to teach. English can provide value for the students in terms of equipping them to problem solve in all areas of their lives. Using FS to teach Standard English techniques as a useful bit of kit that can be applied to all sorts of needs, creatively and humorously but without losing the sense of ‘practical’ application is a really challenging and enjoyable job. I’m just off to whip a couple of glossy Spa brochures from my local boutique spa hotel for the beauty therapy students to use in order to answer my prep questions for the reading exam. I will be asking them to find out how much a hot rock massage costs and how long does the Thai massage take? What are three benefits of a full marine facial? etc. I expect a good degree of engagement because this is what they are all enjoying doing as a vocational subject and I have found when my (real world) resources tie in to the students vocational interests they engage really well and tend to forget that they are ‘studying English’
    However, I am looking forward to seeing how flexible we can get in this direction when the GCSE drops the course work element next year. Hopefully this will allow for a more relevant SOW that we can sell to the students who have just tanked on their third attempt to de-construct the play DNA. Yes many have done worse with each failed attempt and I have felt abominable with them. Here’s hoping for more bridging between the joy of a self actualised young person’s life experience, vocational aspiration and the English classroom.