What are Functional Skills?
Functional skills play a daily role in the lives of adults and young people. Basic levels of literacy and numeracy skills are fundamental in securing employment, living a fulfilling life and also contributing positively in the community. Indeed, in this technology driven era of the 21st century, the days when millions of jobs were unskilled or semi-skilled are long gone. Thus, it could be argued that the demand for essential skills is now far greater, than it ever has been in the past. Even undertaking the most menial of jobs can be riddled with form filling and record keeping.
Functional Skills Definition
Functional skills, also know as key skills, core skills (Scotland) and essential skills (Wales), can be defined as;
‘The ability to read, write and speak in English, and use mathematics at a level necessary to function and progress at work and in society in general. This definition equates to a robust level 1 in literacy (including English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)) and numeracy.’
The above definition has latterly been extended to include ICT skills also. Level 1 standard is broadly equivalent to D-G grade GCSEs.
In 1999, a working group headed by Sir Claus Moser1 estimated that 20 percent of adults, possibly as many as seven million people, had severe problems with ‘functional literacy’ and ‘functional numeracy’ skills. The working group was tasked with delivering a set of recommendations for reducing the number of adults with low levels of basic skills. The report also identified the need to establish a standards framework, for literacy and numeracy, in order to better describe the differing levels of individual ability. These were referred to as Level Entry 1, Level Entry 2, Level Entry 3, Level 1 and Level 2.
Whilst individuals may be assessed as being at a specific level overall, it should also be borne in mind that ability levels may fluctuate, across the different aspects of the discipline. For example, a learner may be proficient in his or her speaking and listening skills, but not in reading and writing. This is commonly referred to as a ‘spiky’ profile. This is why essential skills practitioners should rely upon the initial assessment as a guide only. Furthermore, diagnostic tests, are typically needed to ascertain a learner’s ability in the differing areas.
The findings of Moser’s report resulted in a series of national strategies being launched, across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These initiatives were designed to ensure that adults and young people were given opportunities to acquire the necessary functional skills, to secure and maintain employment, as well as being able to participate fully in society.
Central to the national strategy, core curriculums were produced for both literacy and numeracy.
Literacy covered the ability to:
• speak, listen and respond
• read and comprehend
• write to communicate.
Numeracy covered the ability to:
• understand and use mathematical information
• calculate and manipulate mathematical information
• interpret results and communicate mathematical information
Immigration Impact on Functional Skills
Furthermore, due to the significant increase in immigration from Eastern European countries, to the UK, over the past decade or so, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is also posing additional literacy challenges. The 2011 Census for England and Wales2 identified 4.2 million usual residents, aged 3 years and over, whose first language was not English. Of those, 138,000 could not speak English at all. A further 726,000 could speak English, but not well.
Possible Consequences of Functional Skills Needs
For adults and young people, having essential skills needs can present serious disadvantages in life. It frequently results in unemployment and inevitably restricts much of what life has to offer. It reduces job opportunities and potentially results in a lifetime of unemployment. For some, it leads to a life of crime. As Natale3 (2010, p.2) states, ‘There is a proven correlation between illiteracy, innumeracy and offending.’ She supports this statement with some disturbing statistics:
• 48% of prisoners have literacy skills at or below Level 1
• 65% of prisoners have numeracy skills at or below Level 1
• 67% of offenders were unemployed at the time of imprisonment
Impact of Poor Key Skills
In his report, Moser1 (1999) identified the impact that poor essential skills has upon families, society and the economy. Of particular concern, he highlighted the ‘inter-generational’ effect of essential skills needs. Children of parents with poor literacy and/or numeracy skills are placed at a disadvantage in school, by virtue of their parents’ needs. Unless broken, this cycle is prone to repeat itself, again and again.
The Moser Report1 (1999, 3.9) also identified some worrying statistics about adults and young people with essential skills needs, for communities and society in general. Compared with those with adequate essential skills, adults with poor essential skills are:
• Up to 5 times more likely to be unemployed
• More likely to live in a household where both partners are not in paid employment
• More likely to have children at an earlier age, and to have more children
• More likely to have children who also struggle with essential
• Less likely to own their own home
• Less likely to be in good health
• Less likely to be involved in public life, a community organisation or to vote
• More likely to be homeless
• Over-represented in prisons and young offenders institutions
For adults and young people whose first language is not English, it is far more difficult to integrate in the community, if they are unable to communicate effectively in English. Ultimately, this will lead to segregation and also has the potential to generate tension and unrest, thus damaging local communities.
Essential Skills and the UK Economy
A society of adults and young people with essential skills needs also has an adverse effect upon the country’s economy. Unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are decreasing due to competition from developing countries. Consequently, the United Kingdom is having to adjust. This means that an increasing number of job opportunities are in highly skilled sectors, such as Information Technology. These require a higher degree of literacy and numeracy skills. An unskilled labour workforce will be unable to meet these challenges and will therefore, be detrimental to the county’s productivity and economy.
Overall, a lack of functional skills can inhibit adults and young people from reaching their full potential and leading a rewarding and fulfilling life. It can lead to unemployment, poverty, homelessness, poor health and potentially, criminal or anti-social behaviour. It also has far reaching consequences for the economy, community and society.
1. Moser, C. (1999) The Moser Report – A Fresh Start [online], London: DfEE. Available from <http://www.lifelonglearning.co.uk/mosergroup/>
2. Office for National Statistics (2013) 2011 Census: Quick Statistics for England and Wales, March 2011 [online] p. 6. Available from <http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_297002.pdf>
3. Natale, L. (2010) Factsheet – Education in Prisons [online] p. 2, London: Civitas Institute for the Study of Civil Society. Available from <http://www.civitas.org.uk/crime/factsheet-EducationinPrisons.pdf>