From education to employment

Reevaluating Functional Skills Qualifications: Addressing Challenges and Exploring Solutions

AELP exclusive

In the fourth of five exclusive articles for FE News expanding on ‘Skills Means Growth’, AELP’s vision for a sustainable skills system, Dr Chihiro Kobayashi and Helen Cuthbert outline how we can reform functional skills qualifications to ensure they deliver practical skills vital for daily life and employment.

In 2023, fewer than three-quarters of UK students passed their GCSEs, leaving 28% needing to continue maths and English studies until 18. Functional Skills Qualifications (FSQs), initiated in 2010, aimed to be an appealing alternative, for those unsuited to traditional academia. Prioritising practical skills vital for daily life and employment, FSQs should offer vital support for individuals struggling in conventional educational settings. Emphasising real-world applications, these qualifications ought to be invaluable for apprenticeships, which require specific English and math competencies.

Yet, their effectiveness is questioned, with only 63% passing Level 2 maths in 2021/22. Research by AELP in 2023 revealed many apprentices’ failure to complete programmes due to unmet English and maths requirements. Despite FSQs’ aim to empower those without GCSEs, they currently impede vocational qualification attainment. Resolving this demands a strategic reassessment to bolster learner progression support.

FSQ content reform is needed

Apprentices, drawn from diverse backgrounds, often embark on apprenticeship programmes driven not by a desire to delve into academic studies but motivated by a passion to acquire specific job skills within a work-based learning context. Many in this group can struggle with traditional academic subjects, finding them unappealing. This underscores the importance of practical, work-oriented training. FSQs, especially in maths, can play a crucial role in this setup, if they are more closely designed to apply real-world scenarios to learning, making them inherently suitable for apprenticeships.

In our recent report in collaboration with IER Warwick University, ‘Spelling it out, making it count’, we highlighted a significant shift following the 2019 reforms to FSQs. The introduction of an ‘underpinning skills’ section in maths, characterised by limited direct relevance to practical real-world applications, has been a point of contention. This adjustment has steered the exams closer to resembling the GCSEs, thereby diluting their practical essence and deviating from their intended purpose as an alternative pathway.

Furthermore, learners have specifically pointed out that real-life problem-solving questions in maths, while intended to be practical, end up being convoluted and difficult to decipher due to their verbose nature. Although these questions aim to contextualise mathematical problems in everyday scenarios, their length and complexity require a higher degree of cognitive effort just to understand the question, before even attempting an answer. There’s a preference among learners for the more concise ‘underpinning skills’ questions, despite their academic slant.

These insights highlight the need for a delicate balance in the FSQs exams, ensuring they maintain their practical application without becoming overly complicated. It’s crucial that the content of these exams undergoes a review to retain their functionality, without imposing excessive cognitive demands on learners, particularly in maths.

Funding rates still don’t match delivery costs

The financial landscape for delivering FSQs poses significant challenges for further education providers, particularly those offering apprenticeships. The cost of delivering these qualifications often surpass the funding provided, with many providers find themselves operating at a loss. For instance, FSQ delivery costs can reach up to £1,250 per learner, starkly contrasting with the historical funding rates of £471 for apprenticeships and £724 for other programmes. Despite a 54% increase in funding for apprentices lacking Level 2 English and maths qualifications—raising the amount to £724 since January 2024—the average delivery costs still result in losses ranging from £20 to £39 per learner. Before this increase, losses averaged between £422 and £440 per FSQ in apprenticeships, further exacerbated by additional costs of around £35 per retake, for which no extra funding is provided.

The revised funding rate of £724 per FSQ, while slightly mitigating losses, does not fully cover the average delivery cost of £763 – assuming the learner passes on their first attempt. Consequently, a single resit increases the financial strain on providers, potentially leading to a loss of up to £69 per learner—nearly a 10% deficit.

This ongoing financial shortfall threatens the sustainability of FSQs, forcing providers to adopt strategies that may limit access for learners with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) or those lacking prerequisite qualifications. Moreover, as apprenticeships are the only qualifications for 16-19-year-olds requiring English and maths for completion, providers face the dilemma of either incurring losses or narrowing entry criteria, ultimately hindering social mobility and restricting learner choice.

Although we support the overarching aim of the Prime Minister to improve the maths and English capabilities for young people by requiring maths and English to be studied until 18, the changes to the conditions of funding for maths and English and removing the 5% tolerance on 16 to 19 study programmes is concerning. This is already an area where it’s difficult to attract staff within the current funding envelope but now they are expected to deliver more for the same funding rate. We encourage the DfE to consider the impact that this is likely to have on the quality of teaching learners will receive.

Exploring alternative approaches

In the face of mounting pressure and stress in educational and professional arenas, the stringent requirements for passing English and maths exams stand as formidable barriers to career progression and apprenticeship completion. This high-stakes environment, where the fear of failure looms large, exacts a significant toll on individuals’ mental health and self-esteem. Some apprentices who excel in their job roles are unable to complete their programmes solely due to English and maths requirements. This situation not only wastes their 18 months of effort and low-wage apprenticeship but also hinders their career progression. This entrenched requirement often overshadows practical skills and vocational training, placing undue stress on individuals struggling with mathematical concepts.

One apprentice we interviewed as part of our research articulates her experience as follows:

“It does generally really get you down because when you really want to get somewhere and you’ve worked so hard and you feel like you are really good at your job, it does make you think, ‘I’m not good enough’ cause I can’t get maths because my brain works differently than other people”

Aligning functional skills policy with T-levels and A-levels would be another critical step forward. At present, apprenticeships are the only area where learners are required to achieve Level 2 maths and English to complete their programme. We believe that making functional skills a condition of funding, rather than an exit requirement, would place them on equal footing with other educational pathways – taking away that high stakes situation.

This would also help to alleviate the number of learners who are stuck unable to enter gateway because they have been unable to pass either or both maths and English at level two. In the draft funding rules for 2024/25 providers will be able to use their own judgement to decide if a level two apprentice has sufficient time to make meaningful progress towards level 2 maths and English following the successful completion of level 1. This is a positive step as it is less arbitrary than the previous three-month prior to gateway timeframe which forced learners to study towards level 2 even if they were unlikely to pass. Whilst we are pleased that the department are looking at this area thought there is still a significant amount of work to do.

FSQs can add real value – if we get them right

FSQs offer a promising alternative for individuals unsuited to traditional academia, prioritising practical skills vital for daily life and employment. However, challenges such as content alignment, funding deficits, and high-stakes exam requirements necessitate urgent attention. Strategic reassessment is imperative to ensure FSQs fulfil their intended purpose of empowering learners and facilitating vocational qualification attainment. Striking a balance between practical application and concise questioning, addressing funding shortages, and exploring alternative approaches to ease the burden on learners are crucial steps forward. Such measures can enhance the apprenticeship landscape by better accommodating varied learning requirements and promoting inclusive pathways to achievement.

As we look ahead, it’s clear that functional skills are at a pivotal point. The progress made thus far is promising, but there’s still a journey ahead to fully realise the potential of functional skills in fostering growth and enabling learners to thrive in their chosen careers.

By AELP’s Dr Chihiro Kobayashi, Research Associate, and Helen Cuthbert, Policy & Stakeholder Manager.

Related Articles