What’s happening to Functional Skills?

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30 January 2017 by Jill Stokoe
The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) has now completed its project to create new standards and assessments for Functional Skills qualifications (FSQs).

They will now be based on the National Adult Literacy and Numeracy Standards (NALN) standards and not on the FSQ criteria, which set out the skills that candidates must be able to demonstrate to pass each subject. These criteria were specifically designed to underpin the production of valid and reliable assessment approaches. This approach now appears to be at risk.

There are significant weaknesses with this approach and it has failed to define secure standards across the levels, with inconsistencies in content coverage, demand, and progression, despite marked improvements since Ofqual intervened in their drafting process.

Using the NALN standards for new assessments is wrong. Those standards were written for a different audience, a different assessment model, and a different qualification type (which serves a different purpose to the FSQs).

FSQs represent around seven per cent of all regulated qualifications taken in England and, aside from GCSEs, are the largest type of qualification regulated by Ofqual - with the number achieved increasing to over a million in 2013/14.

In January 2015, Ofqual carried out the first review of the FSQs since their initial accreditation in 2010. The review highlighted the considerable benefits associated with the current qualifications and suggested any reform should not undermine, or risk, these benefits, which included:

  • high participation rates
  • improved profile, recognition and satisfaction amongst users
  • versatile and efficient assessment model suitable for all learning contexts
  • high validity
  • reasonable reliability based upon an external assessment model.

Ofqual’s report was clear that the qualifications were not fundamentally flawed, and that any actions to improve them should be proportionate and targeted at addressing areas of standards variability, both actual and perceived.

In addition, Pye Tait carried out an FSQ review, which came out just before Ofqual’s and also found them to be valued and fit for purpose. 

One year later, ETF was tasked with leading the FS Reform Programme, specifically, to produce a revised set of NALN standards, content for revised FSQs, and a report with policy recommendations. They launched a multi-stage consultation on how maths and English FSQs should be reformed by 2018. However, their conclusions and recommendations are worryingly at odds with Ofqual’s.

The current FSQ is based upon a summative assessment model (at Levels 1 and 2), which is externally set and marked, and based upon a comprehensive set of regulatory criteria. ETF is proposing a multiple-part assessment in each subject, separating ‘core content’ from ‘skills application’. This proposed new model is not only diametrically opposed to Ofqual's findings and recommendations, but is likely to introduce a far greater risk of standards variability to the new qualifications.

The expertise in qualification development and design resides with the awarding bodies, who have unsurprisingly expressed concerns about adopting these untested changes uncritically and without a sound evidence base.

When the GCSE results came out in August and 200,000 maths and English GCSE re-sits taken by 17-year-olds did not make the grade, there were widespread calls for the government to scrap its GCSE re-sit policy, and replace it with a more employer-focused approach which included FSQs.

The former skills minister Nick Boles said recently that the idea of the FSQ reform programme was to produce “more rigorous and respected FSQs”. However, the materials produced to date will not support greater rigour or public confidence in the revised qualifications.

FSQs are the most popular qualifications after GCSEs, and their relevance is already acknowledged by industry, practitioners and learners - but their credibility and value needs to be recognised by government ministers. Although the FSQs weren’t broken before, if these proposals are accepted in their current form, they certainly will be.

Ofqual will run its own FSQ consultation early this year, focussing particularly on securing valid assessment, and we hope when it does, these latest proposals will be rejected. 

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