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Developing Functional Skills for Success

19/10/2022 minute read Doug Hargrove

Digital solutions are enabling more diagnostic approaches in education, where individually-focused content and delivery can help more students achieve higher grades while securing more sustainable funding streams for providers.

The current skills shortage in the UK has highlighted the growing need for higher levels of attainment in functional skills, specifically the ability to operate confidently and competently with maths, English and digital technology.  These skills are required in almost every job and workplace, as well as in people’s daily lives, ensuring they are literate, numerate and capable of using new information technology.

The lack of skills is putting the UK in a precarious position, particularly now, as it seeks to establish itself as an attractive trading partner in the new, post-Brexit world. Without an appropriately skilled workforce, the UK will not be able to compete effectively on the global stage.

Technology is now at the heart of most business functions and more jobs than ever before require at least a functional level of digital skills. For example, recent research from Virgin Media O2 Business and Censuswide reveals that more than half (55%) of employees say there are not enough people with digital skills in their own workplace and 83% are worried about the impact of this upon ongoing business activities.

Plugging knowledge gaps
The last two years has been a challenging period for educators and students. Lockdowns and school/college closures during the pandemic created some bigger gaps in learning for some students. Without the usual expected delivery of teaching in classroom settings, some became disengaged with learning and dropped out of their studies, further exacerbating the skills shortage. Now that education providers have returned largely to business as usual, it is essential that we develop ways to engage with the current cohort of students, making sure they understand the correlation between proficiency in functional skills and their own future prospects.

These gaps in knowledge vary from student to student and are therefore best addressed with a diagnostic approach, rather than standard curriculum delivery. A more bespoke approach helps educators recognise where a specific misunderstanding may exist, and quickly provide the right information and guidance to get a student back on track. It facilitates discussion, helping learners develop a better-connected body of knowledge and understanding than would be delivered in a standard scheme of work

More individually-focused teaching can help learners engage more readily with content that feels more relevant to their current attainment level and future career ambitions, more effectively preparing them for final examinations with opportunities to practice at their own pace.

Teachers are inspired to be at their best too, finding the classroom experience more rewarding with better engaged students and improved exam results. Developing more tailored individual learning plans however requires a lot more work from a teacher to devise and deliver at scale. Teachers are already time-poor and are struggling to manage resources and content for a range of learners at different levels. Luckily, digital education solutions are now significantly reducing the time and effort required to create content and effective methods of delivery that have the potential to transform achievement metrics.

At the beginning of the learner journey, individual aptitude and established skills may be unclear, even for those with existing qualifications. Initial assessment is useful as a snapshot in time, showing where some skills may have lapsed. Where there is no previous qualification, an initial online assessment provides an accurate benchmark for a working level. The best digital solutions will offer a bespoke set of questions, using algorithms to select the most suitable questions for each person. After this, diagnostic assessments can support a deeper dive into specific skills, such as reading, SPAG and writing, that then translates into a more bespoke suite of learning resources that can help students develop areas of weakness and bridge gaps in their knowledge.

One of the challenges in teaching students and apprentices that are following a vocational course is that they sometimes can’t see the point of learning maths, English or digital skills. However, these are critical skills for almost any job - from construction work to catering, agriculture to hairdressing, and it is vital that educators use solutions that offer engaging learning resources. Features such as interactive online content can help teachers convey the relevance of mastering the core functional skills and stimulate a student’s interest with challenges that feel pertinent to their real world aspirations.

Seeing regular evidence around their own progression is another way to keep more reluctant learners motivated. Frequent progress checks are hugely important, but without the right education technology (EdTech) these are time consuming, diverting focus and resources from the core job of teaching. Ongoing assessments and progress data enable teachers to stay on top of any learning problems and nip misunderstandings in the bud, making sure that students don’t fall victim to a mindset of ‘I can’t do this’, and downward spiralling self-confidence. The quicker the intervention, the better, for overall understanding and outcomes.

Some learners, particularly exam re-sitters, may come with a history of difficulties in exam preparation, even with sitting in the examination room. Where they have previously struggled to engage with traditional revision processes, having the opportunities for multiple exam practice can significantly increase their preparedness and reduce anxiety around the final exam, leading to a higher chance of success.

A major aim for both learning provider and student is to ensure that the student achieves the grades that reflect their true ability and commitment to their study. This is important for providers in order to maintain and grow funding for future cohorts. For students, improved grades can make a long term difference to their careers and learning potential as well as giving them the skills to get a job and start making a living.

The significance of gaining higher grades is clearly demonstrated by Department for Education (DfE) figures that were compiled around GCSE results in June 2021. This research shows a correlation between better GCSE grades and lifetime earnings. This may give many students the added impetus to achieve more. Carried on over 12 years of research, students with one grade higher than their peers in just one subject saw an average higher income of £23,000 lifetime earnings and those who achieved one grade higher across 9 subjects were likely to earn an average £207,000 more than lower-graded peers.

The same principle applies to higher achievement in functional skills. Although young people might not be able to appreciate the bigger picture of excelling for the good of the UK economy, they can understand the difference that a higher salary can make to their overall future quality of life.


 bksb is the leading specialist in functional skills, with EdTech solutions that drive higher engagement and achievement. Pioneering initial and diagnostic assessments use AI and complex algorithms to offer the most accurate functional skills assessments available. Engaging video learning content, progress checks and exam practice complete a powerful suite of products to support outstanding functional skills provision.