By Director of Policy and Research Services Ian Toone
Functional skills are an established part of the further education and work-based learning qualifications landscape, having been introduced over ten years ago to provide post-16 learners with an alternative to GCSEs in three subject areas: English, maths and ICT. Currently, these three subjects are available at five levels – Levels 1 and 2, and Entry Levels 1,2 and 3.
- Level 2 is equivalent to GCSE at grade C (or 4) and above.
- Level 1 equates to GCSE grades D-G (or 3-1 for reformed GCSEs).
- The three Entry Levels are designed to measure achievement below that of GCSE.
Functional skills are often taken as part of apprenticeships or other work-based or work-related learning programmes, but may also be included within ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) provision, prison education, basic skills, and courses for learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. Functional skills are particularly relevant to the early years sector because, since April 2017, Level 2 functional skills qualifications in maths and English have been accepted as equivalent to grade C and above at GCSE for Level 3 early years workers. From 2014 until 2017, early years workers were required to hold a grade C or above in GCSE English and maths in order to receive a Level 3 Early Years Educator qualification and be counted in the ratios in group settings.
These functional skills qualifications are now being revised, and the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofqual (the regulator for qualifications in England) have launched separate consultations to gather stakeholder views on the proposed changes. The DfE consultation focuses on the subject content for maths and English. The maths specifications are designed to have a stronger emphasis on contextualizing knowledge and skills, including calculating simple compound interest, percentages based on VAT, approximation, estimation and checking, as well as aspects of mathematical literacy. Some critics have commented that the new content represents more of a ‘tick-box’ approach, with less flexibility compared with the current content. Proposals for English include a greater emphasis on oral communication and on spelling, punctuation and grammar.
There is also a new requirement for the ‘structured teaching of phonics’. This has been criticised by many practitioners as being pedagogically inappropriate for many post-16 students. The Ofqual consultation deals mainly with assessment issues, with a focus on standardising arrangements so that the qualifications remain comparable regardless of which awarding organisation is used. Candidates will no longer be allowed access to dictionaries or tools for checking spelling and grammar where spelling, punctuation and grammar are being assessed within the writing component. A controversial change to the maths curriculum is that students will have to demonstrate skills ‘both with and without a calculator’, whereas the current specification allows for the use of a calculator throughout.
- The DfE consultation runs until 7 November.
- The Ofqual consultation runs until 22 November. (Stakeholder events.)
Voice is preparing official responses for each of these consultations and welcomes comments from members either by email or below, especially those currently teaching or supporting students in this subject area.