Functional Skills: Why they remain important for The Bedford College Group

In the fourth of a series of a series of experience-sharing interviews with managers of maths and English programmes in the post 16 sector, the ETF’s Bob Read talks to Nina Sharp, Director of Progression Pathways with overall responsibility for Maths and English, Additional Support and Foundation Programmes, at The Bedford College Group. Nina discusses why and how Functional Skills qualifications continue to be a key element of their maths and English offer, and how their teaching is organised.

Bob: In recent years more managers are deciding to largely withdraw Functional Skills English and Maths qualifications as a core element in their maths and English programmes, but you have decided to continue to offer them. What do you feel are the benefits for learners in continuing to offer those qualifications?

Nina: For learners with a Grade 1 or 2 it means that we can offer them an opportunity to develop their skills gradually, rather than putting them straight back into a GCSE group in which they probably can’t receive the in-depth support to develop the underpinning literacy and numeracy skills they need. If they are enrolled in a large GCSE class, it can be difficult for teachers to manage the range of abilities. Teachers may need to slow down the pace of their teaching and Grade 3 learners who do have the potential to gain a high grade may not be given sufficient ‘stretch and challenge’. Our Functional Skills groups are smaller than GCSE classes and students follow a flexible, personalised programme based on their individual needs rather than a whole class scheme of work for the GCSE syllabus.

Bob: What levels of Functional Skills qualifications do you offer?

Nina: We don’t offer Level 2 Functional Skills qualifications as the GCSE is also at Level 2 and so it wouldn’t make sense to offer two qualifications at the same level. We offer students a one or two year pathway through Entry Levels to Level 1 at which point students would move on to a GCSE.

Bob: What other benefits are there in offering learners a chance to gain a Functional Skills qualification?

Nina: As a result of the pandemic, many students will not have taken a formal exam before and so they lack many of the study and revision skills required. With Functional Skills, exams can be booked on demand throughout the year which means that there are regular opportunities for teachers to support learners in preparing for an exam within a meaningful time frame – say, four weeks. Most students take their GCSE exams in June, which can seem like a very distant challenge in the autumn term.

Bob: But don’t some parents want their sons and daughters to resit the GCSE at the first opportunity rather than work towards a Functional Skills qualification?

Nina: Some parents do, as the GCSE is a more widely recognised qualification. When I talk to parents I emphasise how our Functional Skills ‘pathway’ can be a much more positive experience for learners. Students who work hard but only gain a Grade 3 in GCSE still see it somehow as ‘a failure’. Passing a Level 1 Functional Skills exam, however, means they receive a full certificate which can be really motivating for learners who have always struggled with English or maths. I also emphasise that at all levels Functional Skills students will be developing their skills in realistic contexts that are relevant to everyday or workplace tasks. This makes sense to many parents, and I believe passionately that we should be preparing learners to cope with the maths and English demands of living and working as adults, and so I feel Functional Skills qualifications have an important place in our curriculum to prepare our learners for life outside of college.

Bob: How long are your Functional Skills programmes?

Nina: We currently offer students one ninety-minute lesson per week, so that’s a programme of about 50 hours (including initial, diagnostic assessments and exams), but we have decided that next year we will offer Functional Skills learners the same length of programme as those taking a GCSE (i.e. two ninety-minute lessons per week), a total of about 100 hrs. We have always felt that it wasn’t fair to offer shorter programmes to learners who actually had greater literacy and numeracy difficulties than those on GCSEs.

Bob: Do your Functional Skills teachers also teach GCSE programmes?

Nina: That actually varies from campus to campus. On our Tresham campus the two qualifications are taught by different teams of teachers who specialise in one qualification or the other, whereas here at Bedford our English and maths teachers teach both qualifications. We have done an analysis to try to identify which staffing model produces better results but the findings are inconclusive. I think that what matters is simply whether they are good teachers or not. Ideally, I would like teachers to be able to teach both qualifications as it would allow continuity, better cohesion and planning for Functional Skills and GCSE. It will also make it easier logistically to adjust the number of Functional Skills and GCSE courses early in the autumn term when we are adjusting to the demand for each qualification.

Bob: Do you use particular online platforms or resources for Functional Skills courses?

Nina: We have been using Century Tech for a few years now and find that it is very popular with students and is intuitive to use. We still use BKSB for initial assessment to generate a student’s level, but then use the diagnostic assessment on Century. Century Tech is built on principles of artificial intelligence and is designed to provide regular revision of skills identified for each individual. The programme is designed to repeat some activities to allow for consolidation of knowledge over time. This really improves students’ retention of information and skills long term.

Bob: Are your Functionals Skills tutors based in vocational areas?

Nina: We try to attach tutors to the same vocational area each year so that they develop a rapport with vocational tutors and become familiar with the opportunities to contextualise their maths and English teaching where that’s possible. At Shuttleworth campus, for example, where we deliver land based and animal care courses, we try to make extensive use of the physical environment of the farm, animal care tasks, etc.

If you would like to contact Nina at The Bedford College Group to find out more about their approach to delivering Functional Skills qualifications, please email her at nsharp@bedford.ac.uk.

For details of the ETF’s full support for maths and English, please visit the dedicated area of our website.

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