Functional for who? A quick assessment of the new functional skills





Martin Allen

Post-16 Educator  March-April 2008                



 ‘Functional skills’ are being piloted in 1000 schools and colleges. Part of the Tomlinson working group proposals for 14-19 education, their introduction is a response to demands from employer representative for higher standards in literacy and numeracy amongst young people. Completing functional skills will be a necessary requirement for moving on to a GCSE grade C pass in English, maths and ICT from 2012. They will also be mandatory in the specialist diplomas.

 Even if students have often used them as ‘second chance’ qualifications -recruiting universities accept them as alternatives to GCSE passes in English and maths- Key Skills were designed to be ‘generic competences’ reflecting new kinds of working practices. This was particularly the case with the ‘wider skills’ of Working with Others, Improving Own Learning and Problem Solving. Even is elite schools and ‘selecting’ universities largely ignored them, Key Skills were promoted as being important for everybody.


In comparison, Functional Skills are seen as ‘compensatory’ skills. This is reinforced by the QCA’s decision to rebrand them as ‘stand alone’ units rather than embed them into GCSE syllabuses and to assess them on a ‘test and task’ basis, details of which will emerge from the pilots. Functional Skills are also distinguished from the more ‘finely tuned’ and higher level ‘personal, learning and thinking skills’ (PLTS)



Despite being promoted as part of the ‘new’ secondary curriculum, the reality is that functional skills are hardly new. Looking at the specifications, teachers and lecturers who have delivered ‘key skills’ and adult ‘basic skills’ programmes will quickly spot similarities with these existing programmes. For example as in key skills Communication units, Functional English will be divided into speaking and listening, reading and writing. Unlike key skills however, there will be no requirements to submit course-work. 


Having to complete additional tests in basics before proceeding to GCSE is unlikely to inconvenience ‘high flyer’ students – schools will be able to enter these students early, maybe even during key stage 3. More of an issue is the sizeable number of students whose access to the rest of the GCSE syllabus may now be restricted because they cannot clear the functional skills hurdle.


The replacement of English by what is essentially literacy instruction will not only impoverish students, but will worry English teachers trying to safeguard the more creative aspects of their subject. It is a further example of how divisions are appearing in the upper years of secondary schools.


Once again the push towards this style of learning raises questions of alternatives. We should be concerned about the types of skills young people need in the workplace, but we should also recognise that employers’ leaders, regardless of changes in the curriculum, have consistently criticised schools and derided the abilities of their students. Surveys also show that many individual employers are unclear about which skills they really need. Many reformers would support the inclusion of ‘basic’ education for those needing it, but as part of a general core-curriculum that provides a variety of learning experiences in a variety of settings. Unfortunately there is little current discussion about this.



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