Why Functional Skills Can’t Be What People Want It To Be

Every now and again someone outside the world of education bemoans the lack of numeracy qualifications for post-sixteens.  There are many students, they argue, who need to improve their maths but don’t need to learn about trigonometry and surds.  They need a course on using numbers practically, something that emphasises the relevance of mathematics both in everyday life and in technical jobs.  They need something, essentially, like functional skills (FS). 

A clamour then follows from the profession that such qualifications already exist.  If only employers valued them more, we could release our resit students from doing a course which they have failed already (often more than once) and see as less relevant to them with every passing year. 

This complaint, that people do not adequately respect functional skills, often comes across as though the fault lies purely with those who will not accept a Level 2 certificate instead of a GCSE.  People should respect FS and if they don’t it is because they are ignorant of its content, the argument goes.  All we need do is raise employers’ awareness of the course.  This has been tried and has not worked.  I think it is worth considering another, less palatable, reason why the qualifications are not well regarded. 

Last year we had a student in one of our FS maths classes (let’s call him Chris), who struggled at the beginning with adding two-digit numbers.  He was not disruptive or lazy and he was making good progress in his main course.  He paid attention and worked diligently, but he found it really, really hard.  Over the year he made a little progress.  We have a couple of very experienced Entry Level teachers and they used every trick in the book to get him doing some basic arithmetic. At the end of the year he sat an Entry Level 3 exam and passed it.  We gave him a Level 1 paper to see where he was at with it, but he would clearly need a lot more teaching before he could attempt the exam. 

However, his course leader was not happy.  Chris could not progress without a full Level 1.  (For those unfamiliar with this level of qualification, Entry Levels 1, 2 and 3 come first, then Level 1 and Level 2.  Level 2 is, in theory, an alternative to a good GCSE.  Many BTEC courses require a Leve1 1 certificate in Maths and English to progress from year 1 to year 2).  We explained that we had entered him for hardest test he could pass this year.  He could try Level 1 next year after further studies (this would mean resitting his first year, or moving onto a bespoke programme doing more hours of maths and keeping his main course on the back burner).  We thought that was the end of it. 

This year we enrolled Chris in a level 1 class, only to be told by our auditing team that he was in breach of funding.  He could not do Level 1 FS, they said, because he already has that qualification.  We checked.  It was true.  He had been booked into Level 1 FS in the early summer, brought in for an “intensive maths course” (not with us), and had miraculously passed the exam.  So now he had to do GCSE.  

There is obviously a great deal to be said about the impact this will have on the student.  I want to focus, though, on the impact on the overall qualification.  In other words, the impact on all students who have fairly obtained the certificate.  Chris (and other students like him) will arrive at an apprenticeship one day having shown his level 1 FS certificate at the interview.  They will at some point set him a task requiring a rudimentary level of numeracy.  He will not be able to do it.  The next time someone comes with a FS certificate, the employer will say “go back and get a GCSE.” 

I don’t know how widespread this malpractice is, but I seem to meet a lot of students in GCSE classes who have done Level 1 FS either in school or college, yet cannot do basic arithmetic.  And I can see why it happens.  In our profession, both institutions and individuals are held to account for what results they achieve.  Combine that with informal, internally invigilated exams and you have created the perfect conditions for the erosion of integrity. 

There are grey areas here, too.  It’s not all out and out cheating.  Some staff find themselves alone, invigilating a small group of students who they know personally.  Perhaps one of them struggles to read the question and the invigilator puts a little more emphasis on certain words than they should do.  There are people who will be aware of this happening, but know that looking the other way and celebrating the high attainment figures is in their own interest, too.  And of course, once people realise this goes on in other institutions, why should they be the ones to suffer at the hands of Ofsted because of their own honesty? 

I am not making excuses for this behaviour.  I find it unprofessional and depressing.  But it is worth looking at why it happens.  We will sooner change poor systems than change human nature.  And better systems lead to a better, more professional culture.  The only way I see to raise the profile of FS qualifications is to assess them with the same rigour as GCSEs:  once a year with both internal and external invigilators.   

I once put this argument to an exam board representative.  He made the valid point that the flexibility of FS is one of its attractions and a rigid, annual assessment schedule similar to the GCSEs would make it less accessible to adults.  He also seemed to disbelieve that the integrity of the exam is a real issue in determining its status.  But employers can put two and two together (even if their students can’t).  Perhaps FS would be less accessible to some who need it were it to be assessed more formally, but nobody needs a qualification that has ever diminishing currency because it is not trusted to reliably indicate ability.