Functional skills tests are a joke!

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As students receive their GCSE results, Ross Midgley, managing director of PBD Early Years Training, argues that functional skills testing is not rigorous enough to ensure good standards.

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Ross Midgely

My training company, PBD, is celebrating exceptional GCSE results this week. Every one of our students studying English Language passed with grades from A* to B. In maths, 57 per cent achieved C or above.

This result is remarkable, given that all these students had failed to achieve a C at school.  Nationally, just 7 per cent of students in this group achieve a C when re-sitting, whereas PBD’s results mirrored the 67 per cent achieved by those sitting for the first time.

It’s early days and numbers are still small, but these results back up our judgement that online courses with tutor support are the way forward for working adults.  PBD students study in private and at their own pace, without fear of humiliation in a classroom, and can ask their personal tutor for help through a webinar or a 1:1 Skype tutorial.

The courses are open to anyone: you don’t have to be training with PBD to enrol.  Many of our students don’t even work in early years but need GCSEs to progress in teaching, nursing or higher education.

But amid the celebrations, this is a good time to take stock of the government’s GCSE policy for the sector, which has been changing almost monthly over the last year. 

Last spring, minister Liz Truss announced changes to the EYFS, inspired by the Nutbrown review, which require anyone with the new Early Years Educator (EYE) qualification to hold grade C maths and English before being able to count in ratio at level 3. A wide range of equivalent qualifications is allowed (including O Levels and iGCSEs) but these do not include functional skills, which the minister saw as a soft option.

This was a controversial move and divided opposition into two camps. One saw maths and English qualifications as largely irrelevant to early years practice, stressing instead values like a caring personality and a love of children. The other camp accepted the need to raise maths and English standards, but argued for the retention of functional skills, which they saw as practical and relevant compared with more academic GCSEs.

I was originally in the second camp. As a nursery owner myself, I know that most parents simply assume my staff have good GCSEs in maths and English: they can’t understand why anyone would argue that this isn’t necessary. But I was persuaded by the idea that, while an ability to spell and calculate percentages might be important, an appreciation of poetry and Pythagoras was not.

A year of delivering GCSE courses has convinced me that there is actually very little difference in standard between functional skills and GCSE. Most of the arguments about ‘contextualisation’ are, to my mind, patronising – assuming that students can only grasp a concept if it is presented in a dumbed down ‘everyday’ situation.

The difference between functional skills and GCSE is not about content or level, but about testing. Public examinations designed for schools present big logistical challenges for working adults, as PBD has learned. But GCSEs are at least robust and reasonably fair.  Functional skills tests are, frankly, a joke. PBD is scrupulous about invigilation but I know of other providers who let students take online functional skills tests supervised only by their manager. Some others, I have no doubt, simply do the tests for their students.  Those who fail can retake tests over and over until they get through.

It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that many of those who argue passionately to keep functional skills simply don’t want to give up a system which makes it easy for people slip through the net without adequate standards of literacy and numeracy.

Merely raising the entry bar won’t, of course, improve anyone’s maths or English: it will simply reduce the numbers qualifying. But those who warn that these changes will leave settings unable to recruit ignore one key point: the requirements apply only to level 3 practitioners. Unless and until there is a ‘Level 3 only’ rule to work in early years, the only thing that a GCSE requirement will change is the proportion of Level 3 practitioners in the workforce. 

Does this really matter?  I’m not sure it does. I prefer to protect the value of a Level 3 qualification – even if this leaves settings operating with more Level 2s - than to devalue the standards expected of a Level 3 practitioner.

I’m really proud of our GCSE achievers. They have demonstrated that a combination of strong motivation and practical life skills, coupled with innovative teaching, can overcome the baggage of having struggled with maths and English at school. 

Ross Midgley is also director of Blois Meadow Day Nursery in Haverhill, Suffolk.

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