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Functional skills for the workplace

19 August 2015

There’s an interesting divergence in current Government policies. Since the election, the Government has strongly advocated productivity, encouraged employability and pledged to increase the number of apprenticeships – all welcome. But when was the last time you analysed a 19th century fictional text in great detail at work? If you’re a member of a book group perhaps it has been fairly recent, but as part of your day-to-day office, hospital, laboratory, retail, building site work-life I doubt it’s ever happened. So why is it that a government which promotes the importance of young people being employable is insisting that those same young people continue taking GCSE English again, again and possibly again until they get a C grade? Tomorrow’s GCSE results will be interesting. This year, those who have received a D grade in their previous attempts at GCSE English or maths have had to continue in their studies in one form or another, with many resitting their exams. It’s understandable to resit if you just missed that magic C (or Level 5 as it will be) or it all went horribly wrong on the day of the exam. However, what if after 11 years of education you have a low D, an E or F and are faced with working towards the same exam time after time – analysing texts which are not related to the world you live in, and writing in formats that you’ll never use again? Employers want people who can use standard spoken and written English, punctuate and spell. They want people who can write an email, report or letter, not stories based on picture prompts. There are qualifications which promote work-related English language skills; Functional Skills. They are based on comprehension and, at higher levels, analysis of advertisements, newspaper articles and web forums. They require you to write a letter, email or newspaper article. These work-related Functional Skills at Level 2 used to be equivalent to a GCSE, now they are quaintly referred to as stepping stones, despite the fact that they bear little resemblance in format to a GCSE. They are full of tasks that you might be asked to do at work on a daily basis, rather than writing a short-story that, while may be full of metaphors, is not something you will do again unless you become an English Language teacher or are helping a young person with their GCSE homework. Don’t get me wrong; I am not suggesting that GCSEs have no value. They are an easily recognised brand both nationally and internationally and include the basis of analytical skills required in degree level education. However, they do not focus on work-related skills. Plus they are only examined in June for new entrants which means that they are not flexible to the needs of young people wanting to take up job opportunities at other points in the year. Functional Skills have been accused of not being sufficiently robust, though they include tests in reading, writing, speaking and listening. Neither do they have the brand value of GCSE, but they do reflect English for the workplace. Surely then it is time to beef them up and promote them as a work-related alternative to GCSE. Catherine Sezen is the Senior Policy Manager for 14-19 and Curriculum at the Association of Colleges.