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The dysfunctionality of Functional Skills training in 2022: Maths and English

Paul Wakeling, Executive Director of Curriculum and Quality at The Skills Network
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In May AELP hosted its Maths and English Summit sponsored by The Skills Network in Leeds, shedding light on ever-changing educational needs and asking whether current functional skills training programmes are doing enough to instil vital life skills throughout the UK.

Now, with The Skills Network supporting the charitable foundation The National Literacy Trust as their national charity of the year, the organisation is raising awareness of the power of literacy skills in childhood; Statistics suggest that just 20 minutes a day of reading in childhood increases lifetime earnings by £280,000, yet only 18% of parents regularly read to their children.[1]

Paul Wakeling, Executive Director of Curriculum and Quality at The Skills Network shares his thoughts:

The National Literacy Trust reports that 16% of UK adults are considered “functionally illiterate”, unable to read or write these individuals are fundamentally limited in almost all elements of their lives.

“This, alongside recent Government statistics highlighting that 17 million adults in the UK have the numeracy levels of that of a primary aged child – almost half (49%) of the working-age population of England[2] – paints a worrying picture of the state of British functional skills training.

“It’s clear that the current approach to functional skills training is insufficient, failing the student at least half of the time in numeracy and offering negligible improvements on success rates for decades; It’s time to develop the process of Maths and English training.

“Instilling contemporary functional skills must be adaptive, modern and adjust to the needs of the student and the world they live in.”

What are the challenges to overcome?

“Recent research by The Skills Network has revealed the scale of “fear” or ‘’shame’’ surrounding functional skills. With low levels of prior attainment, many people experience  anxiety around studying Maths or English due to negative experiences in school or through life regarding Maths and English.

“This alongside an ethos of acceptance; “I hate maths too” unintentionally compounds a belief that low levels of skills in such areas are acceptable, posing real risk to the learner who lives in a world where such skills are a key to a successful life.

“This then tied with the perception that functional skills training is no longer “functional” and a great disparity in funding for FE and school-based Maths and English provisions, coupled with students requiring greater support after years of failure during compulsory education, creates the perfect storm for functional skills failure.”

How can functional skills training be better?


“A fundamental element at a foundational level for effective functional skills training throughout FE, is funding.

“While initiatives such as Multiply are a positive step in the right direction, a stark disparity between the funding availability for such programmes seen at school and through AEB funding remains high.

“In order to provide for students, some now with more exhaustive needs, FE providers require adequate funding provisions, to create efficient study programmes.”

Functionality of functional skills:

“The events of the last two years have fundamentally shifted the way of the world, with recent statistics revealing that over half of the working age population now work from home at least some of the time[3]. Now, with advancing technology and a subsequent shift in the resources available to support numeracy and literacy skills, traditional functional skills training miss the mark on key knowledge areas needed for success in modern society.

“Digital skills are a growing area of necessity, with the possibility to embed functional skills through digital, create an opportunity for more appropriate and successful skills development.

“It’s time to re-evaluate the methods of functional skills training and develop a provision fit for the future.”

Contextualised learning through digital:

“Asking a student, naturally drawn to vocational learning and perhaps with years of prior negative experience to once again study functional skills without context is flawed; And last month’s Maths and English summit made is clear that students crave this context.

“Much like the functionality of functional skills, these training programmes need modernising and the ability to do so through digital means is high, while simultaneously implementing context.

“With advancing technology, contextualised learning through digital resources is moving in leaps and bounds and The Skills Network are proud to be partnering with Metaverse Learning, soon to launch virtual learning of the highest quality .

“Digital technology such as VR  is moving education into a new realm, providing the learner with practical, engaging and fun application of their learning.

“The benefit of such practice not only better embeds learning but it also provides a total re-imagination of learning for the student, offering the context they crave and introducing a new and novel way of functional skills training, removing the functional skills legacy of fear and shame.

“The potential of digital not only benefits the learner, but introduces efficiencies for staff and educators, with The Skills Network’s soon-to-be launched initial assessment tool and diagnostic assessment tool providing pre-emptive indicators of student success rates and tailoring learning journeys to the needs of the individual, alongside offering tutor support and auto-assessed programmes, the potential is great. 

“The role of digital resources in education is now undeniable, and the shift is beneficial for both students and tutors alike but, in the words of Paul Morrison, speaker from Training Qualifications UK, there isn’t a problem with the willingness of learners to adopt online learning, it’s the willingness of the teachers.

“As educators, it is our responsibility to provide our students with the tools to better their lives and if digital is what they need, then it’s time to act on this.”

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  1. Jam tomorrow, yet again.
    At this rate we will never improve basic literacy and numeracy for half the population.
    OFSTED rules need to be changed so no educational institution can be considered “satisfactory” if it is not hitting sensible targets in this vital skills sector.