Functional Skills and Apprenticeships

Functional skills are back on the agenda and will form part of the new apprenticeship frameworks which were introduced in September 2012. They will comprise applied skills in English, mathematics and communication technology (ICT). The skills can be taken as stand-alone qualifications and will be embedded within certain programmes of study and will eventually become a mandatory component of Apprenticeships in England replacing the equivalent key skills. Functional skills in Apprenticeships are available in:

  • English which will comprise three distinct components namely: speaking, listening and
  • communication; reading; writing.
  • Mathematics – which will comprise three interrelated process skills to be assessed:
  • representing (selecting the mathematics and information required to model a situation); analysing (processing and using mathematics); interpreting and communicating the results of analysis
  • ICT – which will comprise three interrelated skill areas: using ICT systems; finding and selecting information; developing, presenting and communicating information.

The term functionality has been introduced into educational and training jargon. In curriculum development functionality is equally as important as context, (see article on this website), to which it is closely linked especially in the teaching and learning of vocational and technical subjects. The curriculum developers leading this initiative have adopted the term ‘functional subjects’ to ‘represent a set of learning experiences that provide people with skills and abilities in order for them to be more effective in everyday life, the workplace and educational settings’ (QCA).

Functional skills are critically important to enhance and enrich the apprenticeship programmes in order to better prepare the learners to cope with the challenges in work and real- life contexts. They must also be about developing personal, flexibility, self-management, learning, problem solving, working in a team and thinking skills.

This latest version of functional skills follows a succession of attempts to introduce basic, key and generic skills. This latest attempt will present learning providers and learners with a number of new challenges. The key issue, as it always has been, even before the introduction of basic skills is how to make the subject material relevant and interesting to the learner.

An awful lot has been written about this but many of authors of these guides have little direct experience of teaching technical students and often approach the subject in an academic and clinical fashion.  Also many of the current text books can tend to present an academic bias to the subjects. Tutors have had a long and worthy track record of teaching the additional skills, competences and knowledge components required in practically orientated programmes long before these recently defined skills were formally introduced. Teaching the application of mathematics, science and communications to ,say, hairdressing, horticultural, Institute of Meat, construction, painting and decorating students etc can be very challenging – yes I have been there and I am not Wilt!

It must be remembered that many learners can be hostile to these subjects as they often perceive their programme choice as not requiring additional subjects like mathematics, science etc. Also they could have had bad experiences at school with these subjects. So the skill for the teacher has always been to make the subject content interesting and pertinent to the learner.

The key issues in introducing functional skills are self evident and include:

  • Making a particular skill relevant and meaningful to the learner
  • Delivering where possible the topic in real work situations and environments or at least in realistic working environments (RWEs) based on the learning providers’ premises. Simulation has a number of limitations. Actual work places and to a lesser extent RWEs are ideal environments that offer opportunities for learners to develop, practise, transfer and apply these functional skills.
  • The major challenge with the introduction of functional skills is that the context and content must be realistic and derived from the realities of life and the work place and equally important applied to those realities.
  • Learners must gain an understanding of ‘functionality’ both in terms of the ‘how’ and of the ‘why’. Functional skills must involve such elements as reflection, critical thought, reasoning, and problem solving. Process and thinking skills must be at the heart of this development.
  • Maximising learning activity as much as possible on employer premises e.g. achieve a realistic balance between on and off-job activities.
  • The specification for the functional skills must not be too prescriptive in terms of contexts and situations. Tutors should have the freedom and flexibility to reflect relevant contexts.
  • The assessment regimes must also reflect realistic work contexts and not be over-prescriptive. Effective and sustained learning will not be achieved through inflexible pedagogy, simulation or a pre-occupation with testing and assessment.

If managed and delivered in a considered and sympathetic fashion functional skills will add great value to the apprenticeship and other training programmes..

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