'Functional skills prepares students for the world of work'

20th March 2014 at 13:00

Kate Bohdanowicz, an English teacher in East London, writes:

When I ask my adult students why they have chosen to sacrifice their evenings to attend my classes in English functional skills, almost every single one says it’s to improve their chances of finding a job.

And if they have a job, it’s to find a better one.

They want to write strong applications and feel confident about performing well in interviews. One also told me he was studying so he could find the right words to use in his complaint letters. I thought that was an excellent reason to enrol: not being able to complain is incredibly disempowering.

So I was disappointed to learn that from 2017, functional skills will no longer be the accompanying qualification for apprenticeships, having been dropped in favour of the ‘gold standard’ of GCSE.

The Department of Education says replacing functional skills with GCSE would “raise the overall quality of literacy and numeracy skills of those entering the workforce.”

I disagree. I also teach English GCSE and even though it is deemed equivalent in standard to Level 2 functional skills, they are very different.

In my once-a-week GCSE class we explore and analyse poetry, novels and Shakespeare and speaking and listening skills no longer contribute to the final grade. We complete the entire course in eight months so we rattle through it with learners sitting their five (five!) controlled assessments on Saturdays so it doesn’t encroach on valuable lesson time. Then we prepare for the exam on media texts and persuasive, informative and descriptive writing.

Functional skills meanwhile prepares students for the world of work. They learn techniques they will go on to use in everyday life, such as how to follow instructions, write emails, structure letters, demonstrate positive body language, hold conversations and skim read to locate information.

We also spend every lesson working on basics such as capital letters, punctuation, common spellings (yesterday it was ‘professional’; a word that crops up in almost all CVs and application letters but is often misspelled).

Progress is startling. One of my students used to put her capital letters at the start of each line rather than each sentence. Now she doesn’t do that. Can you imagine getting to your late 30s and realising you’d been doing that all your life? How many of your letters would have been taken seriously?

Another point to consider is that not everyone will cope with GCSE. These are apprentices and young adults who, for a variety of reasons, failed to obtain those coveted Cs at school and are now back in the classroom.

Forget the idea that post-16 students ‘choose’ to be there. Apprentices are there at the behest of their employers and most would rather be earning than learning.

On my GCSE course, we spend just six lessons reading and studying the novel To Kill A Mockingbird and a further six on Shakespeare. We don’t have time to read these in class so I rely on my students working independently.

Asking an apprentice with little or no interest in literature to spend their precious spare time away from work poring over Romeo and Juliet is a tall order.

It’s easy to fall behind, feel lost and convince themselves they’re “thick”. Then we’re back to square one. Is this really raising quality or simply erecting another barrier for young people desperate to start work?

In yesterday’s GCSE class we explored poetry and discussed similes and sibilance. All great stuff but of little use to the motor mechanic trying to write a customer invoice.

I can’t help but get the feeling the decision to replace functional skills with GCSE was made by someone who knows little about the subjects, the people who sit them and the results they produce.

Take it from me, functional skills does what it says on the tin. It equips people with the tools needed to apply for jobs, impress in interviews and conduct daily tasks such as writing emails, reading reports, communicating with colleagues and complaining when services aren’t up to scratch.

It would be a travesty not to take it seriously.


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