Providing flexible and responsive Functional Skills under the revised Ofsted framework will be one of many challenges facing the sector in 2013/14. Delivering these within work-based settings, as well as in the 14-19 provision, in a cost efficient and learner centric way will lead to greater effectiveness, improvements in success rates and Ofsted judgements.

Introduced in September 2012, Functional Skills provide learners with the practical application of literacy, numeracy and ICT skills for the workplace. Designed to be delivered alongside other qualifications, their function is to contextualise learning within a main programme of study. To date some organisations, including independent training providers and large further education colleges, have struggled with a model to deliver these successfully and consistently.

The success rates nationally for Functional Skills are low. With a renewed focus on performance management under the new CIF, clear evidence of this will need to be demonstrated to inspectors once the 48 hour notice is given to their organisation.

The EMSKills All Things Functional Conference in Birmingham this year provided nominees from the sector with the opportunity to share their experiences of delivering these valuable qualifications. There was a clear focus on good practice in the sector from other organisations, as well as an understanding of how these are viewed under the new inspection framework, not to mention the funding mechanisms for 2013/14.

Walsall College was the first FE College to receive an outstanding grade at Ofsted under the new CIF. They received the same accolade for the delivery of Functional Skills after achieving an overall success rate of 85% in 2011/12. Jayne Holt, assistant principal of learning services, spoke of their involvement in early pilot activity for the delivery of Functional Skills, as well a willingness to invest in training and support for staff in order for them to deliver these successfully across their 14-19 and work-based provision.

"It is important to have a clear understanding of the prior achievements of the individual learner, as well as their career aspirations," she said.

"This understanding must then be backed up by good staff support. Our staff have been given the opportunity to complete the qualifications as part of their own professional development and as a result of this, are better placed to enthuse learners about the use of numeracy, literacy and ICT. Lastly, a central quality process, which is supportive to these needs, together with robust and clearly defined roles within teams, will ensure there is a positive culture towards its delivery in the classroom."

Knowledge or function?

So how do organisations contextualise learners’ knowledge within their main qualification? A knowledge of the subject may not always result in a practical application of this in the test. Formative and summative assessment models will also have a bearing on the timing of delivery, and create the opportunity for those who do not pass the first time to receive the appropriate support. Experience tells us that this will vary depending on their age and type of qualification in their programme, though the knock on effect of this will determine how it is financially resourced.

Efficiency in delivery

Blended learning or face-to-face? Classroom based or distance? These are the questions organisations will need to ask themselves when designing and delivering their curriculum from September. The pros and cons, not to mention the cost implications of these, will determine their success.

Resistance to Functional Skills from learners and the cynicism to their relevance in the ‘real world’ can only be tackled by delivery staff that understand the qualification and can engage learners through stimulating teaching - a theme which is of paramount importance under the revised CIF. Clear assessment of the learning that is taking place in the classroom can demonstrate that this is successful. Individualised learning plans and similar mechanisms can also reflect this, as will a robust observation cycle that focuses on staff performance management.

NCFE is one qualification awarding body that has taken a proactive approach to this. David Grailey, its chief executive, said recently that "there is an increasing emphasis by Ofsted to make sure that all staff delivering learning in a classroom setting, the community or in the workplace, are equipped to support learners in developing their Maths and English skills. Therefore, we’ve been keen to develop the wraparound resources available for our Functional Skills qualifications to help organisations interpret the Functional Skills standards, coverage and range.”

Under the new Ofsted frame work, inspectors will be looking to ‘triangulate’ evidence they receive from teams and also from data they have seen prior to the visit. So that a compelling narrative can be built around this evidence, leadership teams will need to demonstrate how they are performance managing these processes and show how their actions have led to improvements.

Employer buy-in

SMEs and larger employers alike also understand the value of these qualifications. Recognised as part of a programme to support employees, several of the UK's leading businesses have successfully delivered them and have benefitted from the results.

Grailey echoed these sentiments by stating: "Time and time again, we hear from employers that young people lack the core, transferable skills they need to succeed in the workplace. Functional Skills respond to this requirement by giving learners the opportunities to use their skills for real purposes and achieve success as a result of using their skills effectively."

Functional Skills are here to stay and their continued support is reverberated by employers, leaders and support services alike. With a simplification of the funding mechanisms in the sector for 2013/14, there will remain a balance between quality and effectiveness in their delivery which will need to be clearly understood for organisations to maximise the potential of each and every learner.

Tim Evans is the director of Lean4learning who provides efficiency gains for the education sector

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