Functional Skills - What will they add up to?

Functional Skills - What will they add up to?

Paul Steer, Head of Policy at OCR, considers the possible impact of the new Functional Skills qualifications and an Advanced Maths Premium. How will student choices be influenced, and what will be the effect not only on the numbers studying maths but on other subjects and qualifications?

The review of Functional Skills is coming into the final straights, but there is still plenty to do. We await the next technical consultation from Ofqual and the devil is very much in the detail. Issues about the restricted use of dictionaries, spell checkers and calculators have yet to be firmed up, the weighting of different components and the relationship between context, complexity and underpinning skills and knowledge have yet to be fully established, awarding arrangements that ensure a strong comparability between exam boards have yet to be finalised. Once the detail is sorted, the pressure will be on the exam boards to develop and submit their assessments for approval by the regulator, all for first delivery in September 2019. It is amazing to think that the original timeline was for first teaching this September – the delay of one year has proven essential, and an important reminder of how long it takes to develop and implement a qualification.

When the Functional Maths and English qualifications are finally introduced many are hoping there will be a review of the GCSE re-sit policy and that people who failed to achieve GCSE Maths and English at 16 will have the option of taking Functional Skills instead of re-sitting the GCSEs as part of their post-16 studies. Hopefully, the practical approach of Functional Skills will present students with something that feels more relevant to life and work, with a practical approach to learning that supports them in developing the skills they need.

The introduction of the Advanced Maths Premium shows the government’s commitment to raise the numbers of people studying A Levels and other Level 3 maths qualifications post 16. Although A Level Maths is already the most popular A Level subject by far, the UK remains one of the few education systems which allows large numbers of young people to drop the study of mathematics at 16. Arguments as to why this is a bad thing for individuals and the economy were clearly set out in Professor Adrian Smith’s review of Post-16 Mathematics Education.

The new premium offers financial rewards to colleges and schools which increase the number of students on roll taking Level 3 maths qualifications. They receive extra funds for every Level 3 maths qualification taken above a baseline - calculated from numbers of maths qualifications taken by students in previous years in the same institution. How this will work is set out in DfE guidance which, at times, looks like an exercise in functional mathematics in its own right. The following extract has been tweaked so it ends with a question: 

• a provider has 30 students studying A level maths, 10 students studying core maths and 5 students studying AS level statistics in the baseline

• in academic year 2018 to 2019, they have 25 students studying A level maths, 15 students studying core maths and 10 students studying AS level statistics 

• the number of students studying AS level statistics has increased by 5, the number of students studying A level maths has decreased by 5 and the number of students studying core maths has also increased by 5

• by netting off the decrease against the increase, how many students would attract the premium in 2019 to 2020?

Of course this isn’t a great exam question. The language is dense and uses phrases like ‘netting off’ so that it is more a test of comprehension than of mathematical skill. The maths required is that of a most basic calculation: 50-45 = 5. But it is a ‘real life’ context, and one which will be unfamiliar to most students, both of which are requirements for Level 2 Functional Maths.

There are some more difficult maths questions we could ask. For example, will this incentive lead to an increase in uptake of A Level Maths or in Core Maths, or both? Will the incentive compensate for the risk that the new 9-1 GCSE will result in fewer people wanting to go on to study Maths at A Level – the argument here is that, as fewer students will achieve the top grade 9, fewer will feel encouraged to go on and study more maths.

We could also wonder what the effect might be on other subjects and qualifications which are not incentivised in this way, including the Applied General qualifications covered in the report Vocation, Vocation, Vocation which stresses the importance of these qualifications. And the recent Ofqual report on the qualification market shows there is already a narrowing in the number and range of subjects taken in what it describes as the EBacc effect. A further maths question would be how much impact the premium could have on the overall budgets of schools and colleges - the Sixth Form Colleges Association was sceptical arguing that the extra funding would have “little impact on the vast majority” of students. This echoes the point made by the Further Education Commissioner that some colleges remain financially precarious despite the area review process.

Colleges seeking new funding pots might be tempted to respond to the DfE’s invitation to express interest in the phased roll out of T Level qualifications from 2020. However, the scale of the opportunity looks modest. The DFE has wisely referred to this first year as a small scale, transition year. In order to take part, a college has “to identify and recruit a suitable cohort, with a minimum of 10 students aged 16 to 18 in each T level cohort”. Ten students might be the minimum but this still smacks of a very cautious approach. Given what we know about how much is involved in developing and then implementing a relatively straightforward qualification like Functional Skills, the DfE has sensibly put a premium on quality over quantity. 

This article first appeared in the latest edition of OCR's Policy Briefing magazine, which you can download for free.

Paul Steer
Head of Policy, OCR

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