This was a question I was asked when we were recently submitting a major Functional Skills (FS) tender. Of course, it would have been easy to reply “Because you have to. It will be a compulsory component of all Apprenticeship programmes from 1st October so if you don’t do Functional Skills, you can no longer offer Apprenticeships”.
That would have been the easy answer, but in my view, it would have been a very wrong answer. We should be embracing Functional Skills not because we have to, but because it is the right thing to do for the next generation of young learners. Functional Skills provides us with a genuine opportunity to address the skills crisis in the UK, a crisis which has seen us fall dramatically in international tables of literacy and numeracy and which is causing employers to increasingly look abroad in order to find the skilled resources that they require for the 21st century.
I’m still finding a lack of real enthusiasm for Functional Skills amongst training providers and the danger of course is that this will be transmitted to learners. In some ways I can understand this. Key Skills (the predecessor to Functional Skills within the Apprenticeship framework) was easy to deliver and assess – a simple MCQ exam and a non-taxing small project. Pick up your funding and move on. The only problem was that it has resulted in no improvement whatsoever in maths and English skills.
The difference between Key Skills and Functional Skills was best summed up for me by an analogy I heard with the automobile trade:
With Key Skills, a trainee mechanic would be taught how to use a set of tools and then tested on their ability to use those tools. With Functional Skills, the trainee would be taught how to use the same set of skills and would then be tested by being told “There’s a broken car – go and fix it! “ In other words, it’s not about regurgitating facts, it’s about applying information to real-life situations.
Personally, I would much rather my car was fixed by someone who I believed could actually do it, rather than by someone who simply knew one end of a spanner from another.
The evidence I have accumulated from many meetings and discussions over the last couple of months, suggests that many providers have still not decided how they will deliver Functional Skills. So why the reluctance to take the plunge?
Funding levels are clearly a major issue and I have referred to this issue in previous posts. We need to remember that Functional Skills is replacing two separate qualifications – Key Skills and Skills for Life (SFL). Key Skills currently receives funding in the order of £175 for each qualification and Skills For Life (the current standalone work-based maths and English qualification) gets around £420.
Everyone accepts that FS is a far more complex qualification than either Key Skills or SFL and backed up by a far more rigorous assessment process. So it seems very difficult to understand why funding levels for FS remain the same as for Key Skills within the Apprenticeship framework and have been cut (yes, that’s correct!) by about 37% compared with SFL. The government has promised to review the situation but as yet there has been a depressing silence on the issue.
In these circumstances, training providers are quite understandably asking how on earth they can deliver Functional Skills (a qualification equivalent to GCSE O Level A-C grade) and do so without losing money. Addressing the issues of a failed school education for just £175 hardly seems fair. The danger of course is that in looking for a cost-effective solution, providers will go for the cheapest option. But if it doesn’t work, it’s not cheap. I would remind people of four key questions which I believe any Apprenticeship provider should ask a supplier of so-called “Functional Skills Solutions”:
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). 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 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 what qualifications the staff possess and what experience they have had with Functional Skills
3. How successful has your provider been in delivering Functional Skills?
You need a provider who has not only had 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
Despite all the issues, I still believe Functional Skills represents our best opportunity in a decade to address the current skills crisis. At MindLeaders, we now have several hundred learners on FS programmes and the feedback on our delivery solution has been overwhelmingly positive. Pass rates and completion times have been well above the national average and learners clearly enjoy the challenge. We look forward to developing a new generation of mechanics rather than spanner wielders!