Functional skills: Why doesn't the government care?

GCSE and A-level exams were cancelled but functional skills students are now sitting papers, writes Jennifer Wilkinson

Jennifer Wilkinson

Exams 2021: Does the government care about functional skills students?

When many think about the effect the pandemic has had on the traditional examination process, minds instantly go to predicted grades, faulty algorithms and the Ucas mayhem.

These issues are related to GCSEs and A levels. But what about functional skills? It seems as if no one has considered alternative qualifications and the students who study them – not even the government.

Functional skills is an alternative but equal qualification to GCSEs. Having been given equivalent status to GCSEs after the 2019 reforms, functional skills is packaged and marketed to students as a literacy and mathematic qualification that actually applies to the real functioning world.

Students learn practical skills that are transferable to real life, like how to write an email applying for a job. However, as an alternative qualification, mainly confined to vocational institutions, functional skills is often ignored and dismissed as a secondary qualification. This, in turn, means that functional skills students are overlooked in times of crisis, and that is exactly what has been happening in 2021.


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A statement, written by Ofqual and published on the government website in February 2021, explicitly states that examinations would not be held for GCSE and A-level students due to the continued disruption that would mean examinations would not be a fair reflection of student abilities.

The statement says: "We appreciate that this is a stressful time. There has been a great deal of uncertainty, and many of you will have missed out, not just on teaching and learning but on the support offered by face-to-face contact with fellow students, friends, family and employers."

Without question, I agree with this statement. However, the same degree of compassion and equality has not been extended to my functional skills learners; who are, as we speak, sitting formal exams, as are the others in colleges around the country. This leads me to ask a very difficult and delicate question. 

Are functional skills students worth less to the government?

Why are functional skills students’ academic success and mental health worth less to both Ofqual and the government than that of their GCSE counterparts? Have my students not endured the same pandemic? Have they not also experienced stress and disruption and missed out on important interaction with friends, family and teachers? Of course they have. 

In fact, the functional skills cohort is heavily made up of students from deprived backgrounds, those with mental, emotional, physical and learning difficulties and second language students. These students represent some of the most at-risk students in the country and yet almost no provisions have been made to support them.

The government has pushed forward remote exams as alternative provision but they are difficult to do on large scales and do not take into account other factors such as no internet access, no IT access and the lives of these students that would make an assessment such as this impractical at best. That is not even considering those students who are balancing essential employment at the expensive of their education, due to family responsibilities and/or financial strain as a result of the pandemic.  

Now I say this knowing the crushing weight that the assessment strategy has placed on both GCSE and A-level students and teachers alike. I am not condoning these methods and nor do I feel that they are in the best interests of anyone. But the message we are sending to alternative qualification students is that they are not worth considering. More time and attention has been given to the price of Boris Johnson’s wallpaper than functional skills students.

Answers must be given as to why the government is actively ignoring the needs and very real disruption to the lives and studies of alternative qualification students? This is combined with the recent financial clawback that is set to devastate colleges and vocational intuitions, in addition to increased workloads of teachers, administrators, mentors and support workers (all of whom have been hit by continual and significant budget cuts).

The government has a lot to answer for.

Jennifer Wilkinson is a functional skills English lecturer at a college in England

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