As the countdown towards the Olympic Games continues, organisations working in vocational training will be equally conscious of another ticking clock: the impending approach of Functional Skills. From today there are just 123 days until the introduction of Functional Skills into the Apprenticeship Framework and just 92 days until Functional Skills replaces standalone Skills for Life and other Adult Basic Skills qualifications as the only one (apart from GCSEs) which will be funded by the government from Entry Level 3.
So, is everyone ready for this huge change in the way in which people develop maths and English skills? In many cases I fear that the answer may be no.
Over the next couple of months, I will be chairing two Association of Employment & Learning Providers (AELP) Special Interest Groups in Birmingham and Leeds as well as a major Functional Skills convention organised jointly by the Learning & Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) and the AELP. Whilst I am delighted that once again it looks as though these events will be fully booked and probably over-subscribed, I am worried that many of the delegates may still not have a clear idea as to how they will tackle Functional Skills. That worry is reflected in many of the conversations that we have been having over the last few weeks with prospective clients for our own Functional Skills solution.
In order to help people make a decision, I have therefore listed five key questions which everyone should be asking of any potential Functional Skills provider:
1. Does the provider offer a full solution?
There are some excellent diagnostics on the market, a number of software programmes and some valuable support material (much of it freely available from the Awarding Bodies). But the key point to remember is that learners are unlikely to pass Functional Skills purely by taking an eLearning course. They are going to require a significant amount of additional support. So be absolutely clear as to exactly what your chosen provider is offering
2. Does your provider have fully trained practitioners?
Most training providers currently employ Assessors and even with some “top-up” training, it is unlikely that they will have the experience or the knowledge to take learners through to the equivalent of an A-C grade GCSE in English and Maths. So do ask your provider about the qualifications of their staff and the experience they have had with Functional Skills
3. How successful has your provider been in delivering Functional Skills?
You need a provider who not only has a track record of delivering Functional Skills, but has done so successfully. Ask them about first-time pass rates (you should be looking for at least 75%) and completion times. Can they deliver Level 2 qualifications as successfully as Level 1?
4. Can your provider deal with large numbers of learners?
Providers may well have one or two highly skilled practitioners who can handle a small number of learners, but if you are running a major Apprenticeship programme, you need to make sure that they can properly resource it and can do so quickly and effectively. Does your provider have the numbers to cope?
5. How much will they charge?
Unfortunately we still don’t know the funding that will be available for Functional Skills either within the Apprenticeship framework or as a standalone qualification. However, in these difficult economic times, I think it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that it is not going to be any greater than that currently available for Key Skills or Skills for Life. That poses a huge problem for providers: everyone accepts that the delivery of Functional Skills is more complex than Key Skills, will take longer and require greater interaction with learners.
So whilst it may be tempting to look at low cost options, these are unlikely to produce good pass rates and if that happens then your entire Apprenticeship programme is put at risk. My advice would be to choose a provider on the basis of the answers to the first four questions and to transfer funding from other parts of the framework if that is what is required to get the right solution for your business.
Finally, let’s remember that whatever challenges you are still facing in implementing Functional Skills in your business, all the evidence to date suggests that the programme is genuinely improving Maths and English skills and that learners who take these courses are far more motivated and confident than their Key Skills counterparts.