GCSEs v Functional Skills

By Joe Vinson on

Back in 2009 I was one of those nervous 16-year-olds about to take their GCSE exams, hoping every day that my hours of revision would pay off and that Mum and Dad would be proud on results day.

All of this was a long time ago now, but I remember quite a lot about the exams I took, and somehow I’ve still memorised some of the questions that came up (I’m a bit of a geek, I know). The reason I mention this is because my school was a pilot for brand new Functional Skills qualifications in English and maths.

At the time none of us in Year 11 thought much about it. Our teachers explained that on top of our GCSE English and maths exams, we’d be taking some extra Functional Skills exams too, with a few extra lessons involved. No sweat, I thought. Another chance for me to display the skills I had, and another string to my bow so to speak.

The key difference between GCSEs and Functional Skills qualifications is that the former are there to test your academic ability, and the latter exist to see how you can apply your knowledge in everyday situations. There’s lots of debate about whether each qualification actually achieves these aims – and I’m here to tell you that they do.

In particular I want to shut down the debate we’re having in the sector right now about Functional Skills qualifications. There are lots of people who will say that the GCSE is the ‘gold standard’ in secondary education. I don’t deny that they are a useful measure of someone’s ability, but to call them ‘gold standard’ dismisses the other equivalents that exist.

I remember clearly the way in which the Functional Skills exams tested my ability in a way that simply wasn’t possible in the GCSE exams I took. Although I could solve quadratic expressions (I can’t anymore – and that’s part of the problem), it was my applied knowledge of maths in a work context, tested in my Functional Skills exam, that has stuck with me. The ability to write a letter properly, expected of me in Functional Skills English, has remained. Creative writing GCSE? Not so much.

I’m one of the rare types who took both types of qualification at 16, and I’m really glad I did. My Functional Skills qualifications help me on an almost daily basis, and the majority of my GCSE knowledge lies forgotten. Yes I’m able to pass a GCSE exam, but I’m so much more useful to the employment market because I can apply my knowledge in a work context.

My GCSEs weren’t about getting me into college or university - I needed qualifications that were going to prepare me for the work place. They did that to an extent, but I owe my ability to count change in my head to Functional Skills – and for that I am forever grateful.

Joe Vinson is the Vice President for Further Education at the National Union of Students