Ra ra! Go Functional Skills!
ETF (March 2015) ‘Making maths and English work for all’
Attended a session hosted by CfL (Campaign for Learning) last week as part of their programme of fortnightly policy seminars. Ed Sallis, OBE and chair of the steering group which reported significantly on Functional Skills in March (ETF, 2015), presented and answered queries with Sue Southwood, ETF (Education and Training Foundation), previously of NIACE (National Institute of Adults Continuing Education aka Lifelong Learning). The enquiry had a straight forward brief from Nick Boles, MP and Minister of State for Skills: to evidence Functional Skills’ employability value, i.e. find out what employers want of maths and English and an assessment of what they’ve currently got.
Well, Functional Skills’ non-existent PR campaign has worked phenomenally well in the sector: the qualifications clearly stand on their own two feet and answer for themselves the hard way. With only four months for the entire enquiry start to finish, the sector responded with a remarkable degree of feedback; and for a qualification that has only been around for five years (of hundreds!), 43% of employers have heard of them and of those 87% regard them usefully. Of those who had no knowledge of Functional Skills, many expressed a desire for applied qualifications of Functional Skills’ ilk. It was also made clear that another new qualification set is not desired; and that Functional Skills are not necessarily a precursor nor ‘stepping stone’ to GCSEs, rather an alternative route and a distinctly profiled and necessary qualification set. So, it seems our highly flexible Functional Skills are here to stay.
We were slightly concerned to hear that employers consider English skills to be more problematic and in demand, apparently due to communication’s high visibility; while the population as a whole may be unintentionally ‘dumbed down’ by support processes or automation which simply remove maths. Skills performance impacts directly on employers. We’d rather people had the skills, were able to use them, and warded off Alzheimer’s by actually using them. Instead, employers frequently comment that they remove the maths demands from roles to avoid errors. It was commented that a GCSE grade ‘D’ for example has frequently surprised employers in the associated performance. One might suggest that international comparisons, for example by the OECD, help objectively here in levelling perceptual playing fields. “Three quarters of the employers consulted believe that action is needed at national level to improve maths and English skills for people who have not achieved grades A*-C at GCSE” (ETF, 2015, p.9)
Attention was drawn to the dissonance between standards and curriculum since the demise of the BSA (Basic Skills Agency), which oversaw them jointly. OFQUAL’s remit is limited to standards. There was a suggestion that a review to update in the face of technological and workforce trends may be timely.
For those keen on more sophisticated, detailed and historic (back to the 1920’s!) analysis, Pye Tait Consulting’s undepinning research report is available on the ETF website or here