It seems that hardly a day goes by at the moment without the release of another publication which confirms the huge basic skills crisis which exists in the UK. In that context, the latest report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which highlights the relationship between a lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills and poverty and under-achievement in young people, makes sobering reading.
In ordinary times, the fact that the UK continues to languish near the bottom of almost any chart that measures basic skills in the developed world, would be hugely worrying. In the post-Brexit world in which we now sadly find ourselves, it is disastrous. How can we possibly compete or encourage inward investment into the UK, if we simply do not have a workforce with the relevant skills? Moreover, as unskilled jobs are increasingly automated, we will be faced not with an unemployment problem, but with an unemployable problem. For our NEETs, it will no longer be a question of “Not in Employment” but “Never in Employment”.
Over the last two decades, successive governments have launched a range of initiatives – Key Skills, Basic Skills, Skills For Life to name but a few, in an attempt to address the issue. Sadly, most of these programmes have proved unsuccessful as our continued presence in the nether regions of the world skills charts has shown.
However, many of us believe that Functional Skills (FS), with its emphasis on the development of both workplace and life skills, has a far greater chance of success, particularly in view of the ongoing fundamental review of the curriculum and format. Functional Skills has not had an easy gestation period. Until recently, the government has at best been lukewarm in accepting FS as a genuine (and in many cases more relevant) alternative to GCSEs. Moreover, vocational training providers have often struggled to deliver the qualifications successfully. Teaching a young worker maths and English, requires a very different set of skills from assessing their on-job performance and Grade 3 and 4 Ofsted Reports invariably contain criticisms around the delivery of Functional Skills.
However, with employers now in charge of the Apprenticeship programme, this problem can be solved because from next April, employers can choose to use different providers for different parts of their Apprenticeship Standard. We are currently talking to many employers who are doing just that and looking to use specialist providers to deliver the Functional Skills component of the Apprenticeship.
Unfortunately, the funding of Functional Skills remains a huge issue and unless this is resolved, my concern is that it will not only impact negatively on the delivery of Functional Skills, but could have major repercussions for the whole Apprenticeship Reform agenda.
The funding arrangements for maths and English qualifications have always been a grey and often complicated area. Co-funding, different rates for different age groups and reductions for large employers have led to a confused landscape. The government has now said that it will “fully fund” Functional Skills English and maths within the new Apprenticeship standard. However, the rate they are proposing of £471 per Aim is 35% less than the current rate for a standalone Functional Skills qualification. So to be clear, a learner studying Functional Skills as a standalone qualification is funded at a rate of £724 per Aim whereas a learner studying Functional Skills as part of an Apprenticeship Standard is funded at £471 per Aim.
Leaving aside the strange logic which says that identical learners studying the same qualification can be funded at two very different rates, the consequences of this decision are potentially extremely serious. Few people enter the vocational training world expecting to make a fortune, but we are all driven by commercial necessities. The proposed FS funding rates will at best make delivery barely profitable and at worst, the training will need to be subsidised by funding from other parts of the Apprenticeship Standard. Ofsted have pointed out time and time again that providers need to invest more in people, training and delivery systems in order to improve the current FS pass rates but investing in a programme that loses money is the equivalent of commercial suicide. The likely outcome is that Functional Skills, arguably the most difficult component of the Apprenticeship Standard to deliver, will remain the poor relation and learners will be denied the high quality training that they desperately need.
The government may argue that distance learning techniques can effectively reduce costs, but our experience and that of our clients, based on the delivery of thousands of successful outcomes, is that whilst eLearning is a valuable component of any successful FS delivery process, learners, many of whom are demotivated and disillusioned with maths and English, need 1:1 face to face support from skilled practitioners. You cannot deliver that level of support and address a decade of failure in the education system for £471.
Governments have in the past shown themselves ready to listen when it comes to Functional Skills funding and I urge them to do so now and correct this huge anomaly. Without appropriate funding for Functional Skills, we are putting at risk the success of the whole Apprenticeship Reform programme and will once again fail to address the skills crisis which threatens our future economic prosperity and will likely produce a generation of unemployable young people.
Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a specialist vocational training company focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills @RogerFrancis1