Functional Skills

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For some time employers and universities have been calling for young people to leave education with the skills needed to operate confidently, effectively and independently.  In times of economic downturn, it is more important than ever that young people of all academic abilities can manage the demands of the workplace, and of further and higher education.

Functional skills are the essential elements of English, mathematics and ICT.  They are a key element of the 14-19 reforms, helping young people to develop higher levels of practical skill in English, mathematics and ICT which they can apply to real life contexts.  Functional skills are already part of the curriculum for Key Stage 3 and by September 2010 will be a core part of each of the four qualification routes for young people, including GCSEs.  Rather than being taught as separate curriculum subjects, functional skills are applied to the teaching and learning of all subjects. 

Schools already teaching functional skills have found it is a more engaging way to teach and learn. Teachers have provided opportunities for pupils to apply their knowledge and skills to real life situations.  Pupils have been enthusiastic about learning academic subjects in the context of real life, which gives more relevance to what they are studying. 

Mike Cleveland is studying the Advanced Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment.  He explains how tutors on his course try to relate functional skills teaching to the industry that students want to work in: “When we are studying maths we might look at the cost of materials, for example; and in English we are given articles to read about construction.”

Importantly, functional skills are also helping to build learners’ independence and confidence.  In the workplace, young people will be better equipped to apply their skills to scenarios – familiar or unfamiliar – to solve particular problems.  Functional skills will help young people to express themselves better – to produce a logical and persuasive paper or presentation, or write a successful job application.  Functional skills can help them to manage their bills and finances at college, university or when they start work, and to use the internet to access services or online banking.

The way functional skills are assessed differs according to which of the four routes a learner is on.  From 2010 functional skills will be assessed as part of the new GCSEs in English, mathematics and ICT. While GCSE grades will not depend on a separate test, good teaching of functional skills will be vital to ensure candidates gain higher grades. It will also be valuable for young people to take separate functional skills tests, and achievement in these tests will be incentivised through the School Report Card.  Functional skills qualifications will continue to be part of the Diploma, Apprenticeships and the Foundation Learning Tier.

Employer representatives have been involved in the design and development of functional skills qualifications, and many more have been very supportive of its introduction into the curriculum.  Clare Riley, the Director of Education at Microsoft, explains why functional skills are so important. 

“Too often we see school leavers without the basic literacy, numeracy and IT skills which are essential attributes for any of our employees. The functional skills programme will help ensure that all young people, whatever education and training path they follow, will have a good level of competence in each of these areas. Having studied functional skills, new recruits are more likely to be ready for the workplace which can only be a benefit to individual businesses and to the economy as a whole.”

If young people are going to succeed in an increasingly competitive world, it’s critical that their skills are nurtured at the same time as building their knowledge of key subjects.  Functional skills have been designed to ensure that young people have the confidence, knowledge and skills that will help open doors to more learning, to work and to better prospects.   

Maxine Eddleston, Teacher of Functional Skills, St Anne’s Academy, Manchester

Maxine Eddleston had her “wanting to make a difference moment” as she waded through yet another batch of poorly-spelt job application forms.

Having worked in the business and finance section of a fork-lift truck company for 18 years she had grown increasingly concerned about the lack of basic skills being demonstrated by young people applying for jobs there.  “They would come for interview but could not articulately explain why they wanted the job or why they should be considered above other candidates,” she said. “Some even spelt ‘Dear’ incorrectly at the top of their application letters.  My own three children were highly literate and confident, so I wanted to find out why this was and why others were struggling so much.”

Five years ago, Maxine became a teacher and now works at St Anne’s Academy in Manchester, where she is head of English.  Under her guidance, the school began piloting functional skills in September 2007, initially as a discrete subject, and now within the curriculum.

“The school is offering the Diploma so it was a natural path to take. We wanted to make sure we were in there as early as possible in the development,” Ms Eddleston said.  She believes that functional skills will bridge that gap between school and the workplace. Lessons in Shakespeare and Dickens provide the cultural basis that children need, she says, but it is functionality that will allow them to operate effectively in the world beyond.

Functional skills are now embedded in the curriculum at St Anne’s. For example, students studying Romeo and Juliet have been researching how to stage their own production and how to publicise it and design tickets.  “We try to create links with what they are learning and what happens in the outside world. The process encourages problem-solving and finding solutions to the social, moral and ethical issues that make us human beings,” Ms Eddleston added.

She said that, initially, there was some confusion surrounding the difference between functional skills and what was known as key skills.  “Functional skills are taught across all age groups, while key skills were principally for those students who had opted to do vocational courses”.

She added, “I really believe that functional skills will help give employers and HE institutions what they want out of school-leavers."

Useful resources:

  • There is a wealth of support available to learning providers to help them integrate functional skills into their teaching.  The Functional Skills Support Programme is available through National Strategies for Schools and the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS).  A comprehensive, free-of-charge package is available, which focuses on continuing professional development at regional and local level to support providers as they prepare to teach functional skills.  The support covers the teaching and learning of functional skills in a variety of contexts, and is available at: www.  and
  • The DCSF produces a newsletter containing updates and specific dates for the whole support packages on functional skills and Diploma lines of learning - sign up at www.  - ‘Newsletters’.
    • The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) produce a functional skills bulletin providing up to date information on functional skills development – you can register for the bulletin at www.
  • Information for teachers on all of the 14-19 education changes is available at www.
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