Functional skills: clashes over apprenticeship decision

The ESFA says that virtual functional skills tests are the long-term answer, but AELP calls for a portfolio-based assessment

Kate Parker

Functional skills: clashes over apprenticeship decision

Virtual functional skills exams will be the long-term answer to ensuring that apprenticeships can complete their courses, Jonathan Childs, the deputy director of the apprenticeships Covid-19 response team at the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), has said.

Speaking at a Westminster Education Forum online event this morning, Mr Childs said that they were working with awarding bodies to provide a solution for those apprenticeships who are unable to physically sit a functional skills exam. 

He said: “We recognise the challenges in actually laying on those tests. We've got awarding organisations who are working hard to find the kind of virtual solutions to this which I think will be the long term answer. 

“We want to ensure the functional skills remain a part of this, we want people to achieve those basic levels, but we don't want it to hold them up. We've introduced flexibilities but we recognise there is more than we need to do to increase access to those tests.”

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However, in a statement today, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers' managing director Jane Hickie called on Ofqual to allow students to enter a portfolio of work for functional skills, instead of sitting an exam. 

She said: "With more apprentices unable to take their functional skills tests, the latest lockdown restrictions have added to the urgency to the need for a workable solution which allows thousands of learners to complete their programmes.

“AELP believes that October’s introduction of Ofqual’s Extended Extraordinary Regulatory Framework for circumstances where normal assessments have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic offers the opportunity to unlock the logjam.

"Providers should be able to present to the awarding organisation a portfolio of evidence, containing evidence of learner’s work and competency, with the use of a professional discussion to further test and validate the individual’s knowledge and understanding in lieu of having to undertake the exam."

Speaking at the Westminster Education forum this morning, Simon Ashworth, AELP’s chief policy officer, also warned against a technological solution. 

He said: “[There is] loads of disruption in the current climate, and some of that includes the deliverability of functional skills. Looking at other solutions, the technological solution is one thing but there are lots of apprentices who don't have access to IT and digital connectivity.” 

'A huge backlog'

In May, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education introduced a flexibility that enabled apprentices to take their end-point assessment (EPA) before receiving their functional skills qualification in the summer.

However, while some flexibilities around EPAs remain in place, students have to sit a functional skills qualification before going on to complete their EPA. The decision to end the centre-assessed grading on 1 August also meant that apprentices have to physically sit their functional skills exams. 

In a letter sent to apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan at the beginning of October, Ms Hickie warned that the current policy in functional skills was “causing a huge backlog for those waiting for their end-point assessment”.

Ms Hickie told Ms Keegan that as many as 45,000 apprentices and 5,000 adult learners were unable to progress between now and the end of December owing to the decision to end the centre-assessed grading (CAG) for functional skills on 1 August. 

She added that “all sectors are affected but the government should be particularly mindful of the significant impact that the hold-up is having on hospitality, the NHS and adult care as coronavirus restrictions remain.”

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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