Turning up the volume on functional skills

6th February 2015 at 00:00
`Shout about' courses to build brand recognition, say supporters

The government's focus on GCSE English and maths for post-16 students has hindered the development of functional skills and undermined the value of the qualifications, it has been claimed.

David Hughes, chief executive of adult education body Niace, told TES there was little brand recognition for functional skills and urged ministers to show commitment to the courses over the long term.

He spoke out after a report from exam regulator Ofqual explained how awarding bodies were having to make improvements to the functional skills qualifications in English and maths to make them "more valid and reliable".

Functional skills qualifications, introduced in 2009, allow students to demonstrate that they have achieved basic practical skills in literacy, numeracy and ICT. They are used in apprenticeships, as free-standing qualifications for 14- to 19-year-olds and increasingly by adult learners, with more than a million certificates awarded in England in 2014.

But over the past year there has been a great deal of uncertainty around their future, after former skills minister Matthew Hancock described the qualifications as "stepping stones" to GCSEs rather than valuable qualifications in their own right.

Although his successor Nick Boles has given his support to functional skills, he has also raised the possibility of a rebrand, which has created further doubt about their future.

Mr Hughes told TES that the uncertainty had been damaging. "The focus on GCSEs as the `gold standard' has hindered the development of functional skills as a brand and undermined certainty around its future as a qualification," he said.

"We are in a better place now that the government's position is a bit more nuanced. There's an acceptance that functional skills are valuable qualifications in their own right.

"The simple answer is that you need a new brand to gain brand recognition, but there's a danger in that simplicity; brand recognition takes a long time. If we changed the name we would be in danger of undermining the value of functional skills."

Mr Hughes continued: "The government needs to show its commitment over the long term to develop the qualifications and support recognition of them. People will start to appreciate functional skills when they see their rigour and the quality of learning."

The Education and Training Foundation is currently carrying out a review of the various options for English and maths qualifications for post-16 learners, including functional skills. It will report its initial findings in March.

Patrick Craven, director of assessment policy at City amp; Guilds - one of the largest providers of functional skills qualifications - said there was a need to raise the profile and improve people's understanding of functional skills.

"There's quite a significant amount of support for functional skills as an alternative to other English and maths qualifications," he said.

"What we would guard against is a desire to throw away and start again. What would be useful is a better understanding about how they feed into the national qualifications offer.

"I think the profile could be raised with learners and parents; it's about recognising what's different about functional skills and why that's a good thing."

Jeremy Benson, Ofqual executive director for vocational qualifications, admitted that there was "more to be done" to improve awareness and recognition of functional skills.

"Our job as regulator is to make sure qualifications are as good as they can be," he said. "Like any brand, functional skills needs to establish itself in people's consciousness. There are encouraging signs about how they are recognised, but a lot of people still don't understand or know what they are.

"The main thing for us to do is show people we are taking them seriously and improving them where they need to be improved. The people who make and use functional skills should be shouting about them."

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills described functional skills as an "important part" of the English and maths qualification system.

"The government supports the actions that Ofqual is taking to ensure consistently high standards," he added. "It is vital that functional skills qualifications are rigorously assessed so that employers and learners can have confidence in their value."

`Content matters more than terminology'

Functional skills are an integral part of many courses at Chichester College, which was rated outstanding by Ofsted last March. In its report, the inspectorate says: "Success rates for learners on functional skills courses are high and, for learners aged 16-18, outstanding."

But deputy principal Andrew Green, pictured, tells TES that the college uses the term maths and English to encompass both functional skills and GCSEs.

"Employers are looking for evidence of competency in maths and English," he says. "If you are looking for a job it asks what your level of maths and English is, not if you have a functional skills qualification."

Mr Green says the branding of functional skills is not an important issue for Chichester.

"For us, it's about engaging with employers and giving students the skills to make them employable. The content is much more important than the terminology."

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