The partnership between The Open University (OU) and three FE colleges has been extended with the launch of sector specific English and maths functional skills.

Supporting the government’s National Retraining Scheme, several courses are now available with contextualised content, specific to the construction; engineering; health; social care and education. The free courses, available on the OU’s free learning platform OpenLearn, will now include examples, quizzes and videos to further improve the practical application of the learning.   

Funded by the Department for Education’s Flexible Learning Fund, the OU is partnering with Bedford College Group, Middlesbrough College and West Herts College to deliver the scheme. Course content has been created by the OU in collaboration with relevant sector experts at the partner colleges.

Flexible study options on the OU’s free OpenLearn platform, gives an applied and everyday approach to learning these core skills which can have a real impact in getting people into work or apprenticeship schemes. Already, more than 30,000 people have accessed the OU’s Level 1 and 2 Functional Skills free course materials in maths and English; and an initial survey of some of these learners showed 53% were studying to improve their career prospects.

People can access the free course materials on OpenLearn at their leisure and study at a pace and time that suits them. Each college supports learners in their area and facilitates exams so that eligible learners can go on to get their Functional Skills qualification if they wish – all for free. The survey of some of the Level 1 learners found that 36% of students did want to gain qualifications.

A vital stepping stone

Andrew Law, Head of Business Propositions at The Open University, said:

“The OU’s ability to increase productivity and regional skills, promote growth and social mobility is more crucial than ever. Through a flexible approach to learning students can ‘learn and earn’ and many use OU study to re-skill and up-skill. It’s clear that in the future, more than ever, people will need to hop on and hop off their learning journey throughout life. 

“Lifelong learning is about having more than one bite at the educational cherry. And one way to make this is a reality for many, is to work collectively. This scheme shows the impact that HE and FE partnerships can have.”

Perfect for my circumstances

In March 2019, Angela Taylor, an adult social care worker, was offered by her employer the opportunity to start an apprenticeship at Birmingham City University (BCU) in September 2019. She needed functional skills in Math and English at level 2, the equivalent to the GCSE grade C in order to be considered for the course. Through the scheme, she was able to study the OU courses through West Herts College.

“I contacted West Herts College who explained the online learning with The Open University and themselves. Where the exams would be sat, would be the quickest way to achieve the exams required for September 2019.

“I thought this was perfect for my circumstances, as I work full time and could not commit to set times each week, this way I could complete the online course at my own pace and time allowing.

“I attended Watford Campus to sit a competency test to see which level I could study at, fortunately I could start at level 2 (which was needed). I started my online learning, to help myself I completed level 1 and level 2 in both maths and English, just to help me get back into the swing of learning again, as it had been over 30 years since I was in formal education.

“When I had completed the level 2, I booked my exams via email with West Herts College. There were many dates and different venues to choose from to try and accommodate all students.

“I passed my maths, reading English and speaking and listening parts on my first attempt. However, the writing part did not come so easily. Finally, after my 3rd attempt I received the congratulations email.

“The results of all the exams were provided very quickly, within the week for the English and within 10 days for the maths.

“I can now start my University degree at BCU in September. I have recommended these courses to friends and family members as I feel they are invaluable for people that want to progress in their careers and do not have the relevant GCSE's.”

Louise Thurston, Associate Director of Employer Engagement at West Herts College added:

“We’re delighted to have been part of such a rewarding project. This flexible program has provided a valuable opportunity for students looking to upskill in English and maths across the community.”

Supporters of the scheme

The scheme also involves collaborations with organisations and community groups including Local Enterprise Partnerships, WEA, Unison, Leonard Cheshire Disability and other union and business groups.

The OU is also currently in discussion with Department of Work and Pensions to explore how these Functional Skills courses (and other free employability courses from The OU) could be promoted in Jobcentre Plus centres to help improve job prospects in a number of regions.

Alongside funding as one of the Flexible Learning Fund projects, this pilot is benefiting from a kind donation by one of the OU’s supporters, Dangoor Education.

In parallel with the English pilot, the OU is partnering with colleges in Wales on a similar pilot to deliver Essential Skills in English and maths.  The Welsh pilot is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

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