First outing for new skills

Pilots kick off to boost 'functional' abilities in numeracy and literacy for employment prospects. James Graham reports

Welsh pupils in around 25 schools will get their first taste of new "functional skills" this term. The WJEC, the Welsh exam board, is to trial functional maths as part of this year's GCSE courses.

Functional skills are part of reforms set out in the 14-19 white paper by the Westminster government to address employers' concerns that too many school-leavers have poor literacy and numeracy.

Last month, the Confederation of British Industry claimed a third of companies had introduced remedial training for employees in literacy or numeracy in the past year. English, maths and ICT GCSEs will all have a functional skills component by 2010.

In England, functional skills will also be incorporated into new vocational diplomas for post-14 pupils and become a set of stand-alone qualifications - although there are no plans for the latter in Wales.

Derec Stockley, the WJEC's head of exams and assessment, has written to Welsh secondary schools saying functional skills in maths will be tested in a separate paper focusing on "context and application".

The two existing maths GCSE papers will be adapted and reduced to complement the new part, and there will be no coursework. The WJEC is also trialling further maths, an additional GCSE aimed at high achievers.

Functional skills are the latest to be added to a growing catalogue of "skills" in the education system, alongside the basic skills of adult numeracy and literacy, and the key skills found in, for example, the Welsh baccalaureate.

The key skills (application of number, communication, ICT, improving own learning and performance, problem-solving, and working with others) are available as standalone qualifications at a range of levels, from 1 and 2 (GCSE equivalent) to 3 and 4 (A-level and beyond).

But there is an increasing emphasis on the assessment of skills within qualifications, and these form part of the "core" curriculum of the Welsh bac. They are also becoming more important to how GCSEs are marked.

"Functional skills in English GCSE could, for example, require pupils to write a report based on an advert or an article," said Arthur Parker, WJEC assistant director.

"At present, pupils are required to demonstrate these skills in a GCSE paper, but it's not a requirement that they pass that part."

Brian Lightman, vice-president of the Association of School and College Leaders, has been piloting the bac at St Cyres comprehensive, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan.

"To get the Welsh bac you have to gain accreditation in all the key skills," said Mr Lightman.

"Key skills are all things that every employer says they want, which have not been as explicit in the curriculum. The difference now is that students are becoming aware of this vocabulary, and it's being built into courses."

Where this shift will leave standalone skills qualifications is not yet clear, says Mr Parker.

"There will still be a need for standalone qualifications to cater for many learners outside GCSE. Also, there isn't any suggestion these skills will be incorporated into A-levels, so there will need to be provision for those progressing to key skills level 3," he said.

Geraint Davies, policy officer of teachers' union the NASUWT Cymru, said key skills were suffering because young children had been less exposed to the basics because of an "overloaded primary curriculum".

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Basic skills

Known as "skills for life"; the ability to read, write, speak English and Welsh, and understand basic maths at a level necessary to function and work in society.

Three levels of literacy and numeracy qualifications are aimed at post-16 learners who are "above special needs and below average", according to the Basic Skills Agency.

Key skills

Those "needed for success in education and training, work and life in general", according to the Department of Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills. They are application of number, communication, ICT, improving own learning and performance, problem-solving, and working with others.

Available at four different levels of difficulty.

Functional skills

Described as the "English and maths that people need for everyday life, including at work", these are being integrated into ICT, English and maths GCSEs.

Emma Watkins, head of policy at CBI Wales, said employers see these as "the ability to add up in your head, and write and speak correctly".

In England they will eventually replace basic and key skills.

Standalone skills

The key skills are increasingly delivered as part of other qualifications.

England plans to launch standalone functional skills qualifications.

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