When learners are no longer offered the luxury of resits in English and maths, are functional skills qualifications a better alternative for some? Charlotte Bosworth explains her view.

A recent report by the Education and Training Foundation: Making maths and English work for all, described how the traditional learning approach leading to GCSEs can, for some students, present real problems – often leading to disappointing results.

With just 7% of re-sits in English and maths obtaining the desired grades (after first failing to achieve them), simply re-treading the same educational steps is more often than not giving the same results.

We have long been arguing there needs to be an alternative to GCSE

We have long been arguing there needs to be an alternative to GCSE, one that suits greater contextualisation in delivery and supports the type of practical application of English and maths needed in the work place.

So we are particularly pleased to see that the report also recognises that functional skills are an alternative to GCSE, rather than a stepping stone to it, and are emerging as qualifications that are valued by employers, learners and the education and training sector.

A more effective vocational-based programme focuses upon the identification of the learner’s weaknesses in their underpinning maths and English skills, teach them these skills, and then demonstrate how to apply such skills for GCSEs or further development of functional skills.

Where the GCSE supports the critical thinking skills, like analysis and evaluation; functional skills supports process skills, like information processing and problem solving.  Each of these domains need to be supported by understanding the fundamental underpinning skills such as spelling, grammar, comprehension, number, shape and space.

The report recognises that functional skills are an alternative to GCSE

The acquisition of these underpinning skills is the precise purpose of qualifications designed to provide stepping stones to GCSE or Functional Skills, such as OCR’s Cambridge Progression qualifications – which received an explicit mention in the report.  These qualifications were specifically designed to help identify and fill existing skills gaps and to allow learners to successfully progress to GCSE or Functional Skills as appropriate for their own progression.

This different approach also supports teaching establishments when it comes to influential performance league tables.

Recent changes to the school league table formats  mean grades achieved through resits are no longer accepted.  This puts increased pressure on all stakeholders to ensure the first examination attempt really is the strongest.  We believe this can be achieved by simply working alongside learners who may struggle in examinations in a way that plays to their strengths and does not reinforce their weaknesses.

Helping students develop underpinning skills required for English and maths. before progressing their process and problem-solving abilities, means teachers can ensure a better in-depth grasp on  core subjects and thereby enhance exam performance.

All of this can be practically delivered through a vocational focussed learning structure that uses ongoing assessment and   a framework of bite-sized, credit-based units before progression to the GCSE format or further Functional Skills achievement.

A prime example is teaching maths as a process  that helps solve everyday scenarios – making it both engaging and relevant for students and providing context for learning – rather than teaching it in the abstract

This approach  increases the opportunity for a  successful academic journey for many students, and, with performance league tables in mind, also ensures the teaching establishment is given proper and due recognition via improved results.

English and maths are viewed as critical subject areas – especially by prospective employers – and as such, we must collectively seek the best answers to ensure that all students are supported and have access to the most appropriate learning route for them so that they can fulfil their true potential.


Charlotte Bosworth is director of skills and employment at OCR