Category: News

Newsletter 8th March 2011 – Functional Skills in The Wolf Report

Making Sense of Functional Skills – fortnightly news and comment about Functional Skills

edited and compiled by Jonathan Wells – 0191 305 5051

March 8th – in this issue

Just one item of news this week – The Wolf Report. You may well have read other general commentary on the Wolf report in recent days; this one focuses on how the report deals with Functional Skills – and by extension maths and English.

The full report can be obtained here.

Well, the proverbial elephant in the room is certainly getting talked about now! The elephant in this case is those “very easy to pass” qualifications that serve the funding requirements of providers rather than the needs of learners or employers. In this context Key Skills – both Application of Number, and Communication – bear the brunt of Professor Alison Wolf’s criticism.

Professor Wolf wants to see all students under 19 progressing towards GCSE A*-C passes in English and maths by pursuing a course that leads towards ultimate GCSE success. She is particularly scathing about Key Skills saying it “should not be considered a suitable qualification in this context” and that something needs to be done about this in apprenticeship frameworks.

Professor Wolf questions the value of ‘equivalence’ qualifications that schools offer on the basis of points score – especially where grade C in maths and English is not achieved. She finds that funding incentives deliberately steer institutions (and therefore students) away from stretching qualifications in English and maths. She says “the UK (including England) is effectively unique in not requiring continued mathematics and own-language study for all young people engaged in 16-19 pre-tertiary education”.

Functional Skills – the good things

Professor Wolf is hugely supportive of GCSE maths and English for post-16 students, and with Functional Skills now representing 45% – 55% of the curriculum that can only be a very good thing. Combine this with (as yet) unpublished reports that doing Functional Skills at KS3 provides an excellent platform for GCSE success at KS4, and there are excellent reasons for centres to support Functional Skills.

Professor Wolf highlights some difficulties in teaching Functional Skills, such as the need for a wide experience of contexts and the fact that most vocational teachers are not maths and English experts. While accepting that the best practise does achieve it, she says teaching Functional Skills “in a mass system is ambitious and demanding”.

She finds no reason to dismiss Functional Skills qualifications, and says that for many post-16 learners, the jump straight to GCSE may simply be too much; the inference being that Functional Skills could be adapted to be a suitable intermediary qualification to support students towards the GCSE attainment goal.

Professor Wolf is uncertain as to whether FL is an appropriate framework for those unable to access a level two qualification, despite the support of the framework by the pilot centres, which she dismisses as she says “most pilot sites who are bound to be enthusiastic!” For the lowest attaining learners, including those who are highly disaffected with formal education (and many with LDD), English and maths plus work experience (as opposed to the accrual of qualifications) should form the core of their education.

Functional Skills – the not so good things

Professor Wolf describes what she calls “serious conceptual problems” with Functional Skills, focussing on the massive challenges of teaching skills in a wide variety of contexts, to different learners in different centres, yet being subjected to a set of exam questions that is the same for every learner.

This, combined with a lack of standardisation across Awarding Organisations is her key concern with Functional Skills. This opinion is based on the results from the pilot. In September 2010, a significant number of changes were introduced to the qualification, assessments and standards that are not referenced in the report.

In terms of pass rates, Professor Wolf notes that Functional Skills have much lower pass rates than Key Skills and from that concludes that they may be setting higher standards, but the contextual message remains very much one of attacking Key Skills.

There is little real discussion of Diplomas (which does seem strange in a review of vocational education), perhaps due to the very small contribution the qualification made to the latest available (2010) results statistics.

Functional Skills – opinion

This report was not about Functional Skills. Professor Wolf had much bigger fish to fry within her remit, and it seems she didn’t have a lot of time to investigate Functional Skills in depth. For example, we understand she was presented with substantial evidence linking Functional English and maths at KS3 with improved GCSE results (an outcome she clearly favours) yet she didn’t reference this at all in her report.

Professor Wolf repeatedly champions the value of GCSE A*-C passes, yet nowhere makes the connection between that qualification and Functional Skills – either as a component of the pass, nor as a means of progression to it. Her report also fails to address the issue that a GCSE A*-C pass does not guarantee to either an employer or to FE/HE that the student is competent in the subject because passing is more often about compensation. Nor does she put forward any suggestions as to how students reach the GCSE goal.

Perhaps most significantly, Functional Skills is not mentioned at all in any of the 27 recommendations, yet many of us could argue how it would successfully contribute to many of them.

The Red Face Awards

I suggest two groups of people may be shuffling their feet in embarrassment following this report.

The first is John Hayes, who as Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, only a few weeks ago allowed an extension to Key Skills in Apprenticeships – when Professor Wolf says the answer for apprentices is to ensure they receive relevant teaching and “not to continue with frameworks that require only the current key skills accreditation.

The others are the industry bodies (AoC, ALP etc) representing training providers, colleges and awarding organisations who are described as making “vociferous protests” in support of Key Skills that Professor Wolf describes variously as “valueless”, “easy to pass” and “in no real sense equivalent to the GCSE grades with which they enjoyed and enjoy formal equivalence”.

The next newsletter is scheduled for Tuesday March 22nd, or sooner if something significant happens! If you have any comments, suggestions or your own news that you’d like to publicise, just let me know.

Accredited functional skills bodies – Sept 2010

The current list (Sept 2010) of functional skills accredited bodies can be found, via this link.

The 6th National Diploma Conference

The 6th National Diploma Conference takes place in Birmingham on Monday October 11th.
It’s a great event, the Guroo guys are regulars and as usual we’ll have a exhibition stand.
Friends of Guroo can claim a 20% discount on fees using the special order form here.

Delivering Diplomas magazine

Jonathan Wells discusses what “functional” in Functional Skills means.

Delivering Diplomas magazine – the digital version is available here.

Guroo content bulletin

Latest Content News

Item: The first batch of revised and refreshed worksheets, solutions and lesson plans are available for:

English Entry Level 3: New York New York, Face Off
English Level 1: Pharaoh’s Revenge, Driving You Mad, Clowning Around, Please Hold, Quiet Please
English Level 2: Going Going Gone, Home Sweet Home, Through The Keyhole, Have I Got News For You,
Going Green, Is It Safe?, Master Chef, My Idol

Action to Implement: You may wish to download and print the latest versions of these materials to keep your Tutor Packs up to date.
We expect the remaining worksheets, solutions and lesson plans to be revised and refreshed before the end of term.

Ofsted comments about functional skills

The quotations below refer to all the references in the 2008/09 Ofsted report that mention functional skills.

Developing the core skills of literacy and numeracy remains a relatively weak area of provision. Barriers include poor integration of functional skills with other aspects of learning within Diplomas.

Learners are particularly engaged and motivated by staff who draw on industry expertise to enliven teaching and make it relevant.

Many schools identify problem-solving in mathematics as a priority for improvement, but few tackle it really well. For older students, evaluation of the implementation of Diplomas shows that, even in some successful consortia, the teaching of functional skills is less engaging and of poorer quality than the vocational elements.

Early indications are that students are motivated and challenged by the applied style of learning in Diplomas. However, work to develop their functional skills frequently lacks coordination, and the quality of the teaching and learning of these skills varies considerably.

Moreover, the functional skills agenda is becoming increasingly complex as the multiple 14 to 19 pathways lead to learners arriving at colleges with very different levels of these skills.

For some young people working towards the new Diplomas, a key barrier to the acquisition of good literacy and numeracy is the poor integration of functional skills, which are being piloted, with other aspects of learning. At present, the teaching of functional skills is very varied across providers and, too often, different providers within a consortium do not work together sufficiently to support learners. In many cases, functional skills are taught separately from the rest of the course with the result that opportunities to apply those skills in a practical context are limited.

Pre-release announcement of new E3 materials

Guroo is pleased to announce new E3 materials now available within the site, including new worksheets, solutions, lesson plans and interactive tasks with further additions to all Maths, English and ICT subjects following later this term.

Guroo content update

Latest Content News

Item: The first Entry Level materials are now online, with worksheets, solutions and lesson plans for:

English Entry Level 3: New York New York, Face Off
ICT Entry Level 3: Blog It!, Mum’s The Word
Maths Entry Level 3: Be Patient, Up To You

Action to Implement: Update your Tutor Packs by downloading and printing the new materials.

Item: New Interactive Tasks
ICT Entry Level 3: Blog It! – Tasks 1-3, Mum’s The Word – Tasks 1-3
Maths Entry Level 3: Be Patient – Tasks 1-4, Up To You – Tasks 1-3

Action to Implement: No action necessary, this content is now available online within the Challenge(s)

Coming Soon: Entry Level 1 and Entry Level 2 Learning Challenges and the remaining interactive tasks for all Entry Level Learning Challenges

New Term, New Functional Skills Resources

Over the Summer holiday period, the guroo content jockeys have been busily beavering away adding tons of extra content to the guroo service.
That means more Learning Challenges, providing greater coverage – in breadth and depth – of the skills in the Functional Skills standards.

… with more paper-based and online interactive tasks – all with solutions and explanations of the underpinning learning.
… more lesson plans – perfect for those Functional Skills practice sesions led by non-subject specialists.

… and more practice questions to prepare your learners for assessment.
We’ve also added the first Entry Level materials in the form of scenario based resources included for English, ICT and Mathematics at Entry Level 3 – with Entry Level 2 and 1 versions of these on the way.
In total, we’ve almost doubled the number of Learning Challenges within guroo while maintaining incredibly low prices – including cost-effective options for everything from small cohorts of learners through to whole-authority subscriptions.

Find out how you can get access to the leading collection of Functional Skills resources here (there are special offers this month!).

Press Release: Functional Skills in GCSE Changes

Functional Skills Guru Welcomes GCSE Changes

7 April 2009 – A leading commentator has welcomed last week’s announcement that removed the “hurdle” of passing separate Functional Skills exams to pass core GCSEs from 2010.

“At first glance, it looks like a backward step” says Jonathan Wells, “but as long as the Government follows up on its commitment to encourage, incentives and reward schools who offer Functional Skills as separate qualifications, the end result will be more focus on this critical area, not less.”

In a letter from Rt Hon Jim Knight MP (Minister of State for Schools and Learners) to Kathleen Tattersall OBE (Chair of Ofqual) dated 2nd April, the Minister conceded “for now” that release of the new GCSE criteria could not be delayed while ways were found to reconcile the differences between GCSEs passed in England with those from Wales and Northern Ireland if English students were required to pass a separate Functional Skills “hurdle”.

“There is much to welcome in Jim Knight’s letter” says Jonathan, “and indeed Kathleen Tattersall has re-stated her support for the objectives of Functional Skills. Any school who thought this was a reprieve should consider that we are now in a situation where Functional Skills will make up about 50% of the new GCSEs – albeit within the GCSE assessment rather than standalone – and schools will be under considerable pressure to put learners through a separate Functional Skills assessment to demonstrate to stakeholders such as employers, further and higher education, and parents … that learners have truly functional skills that everyone values.”

Separate Functional Skills passes in English, mathematics and ICT are a must-pass element of the new Diplomas, lines of learning which 40,000 learners will be following from September 2009, and Functional Skills qualifications will replace other “core” or “basic” skills programmes such as Key Skills and ALAN (Adult Literacy and Adult Numeracy).

Jonathan again: “Jim Knight has already made a reference to linking separate Functional Skills qualifications to the new School Report Card, and it’s clear that he is very motivated to find other ways of ensuring that schools offer a separate qualification to show mastery of these core skills. Who knows what might follow – Functional Skills in performance table, links to funding – but one thing we can be sure of is that Functional Skills continues to be at the heart of 14-19 education!”

Jonathan Wells
jwells at

The eVolve Centre
Rainton Bridge Business Park
Cygnet Way
Houghton le Spring

Direct Dial: 0191 305 5051
Mobile: 07753 822393

For Editors:
Jonathan Wells is Founder and MD of Guroo Ltd, a Naace Fellow and Functional Skills trainer and consultant.
Kathleen Tattersall’s letter to Jim Knight is at:
Jim Knight’s reply is at:

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