Maths and English versus functional skills

For a recent research project, SET member Paul Smith spoke to young people attending courses at level one or below about their hopes for the future. Most of these young people had not achieved GCSE grade C in maths and English and many were studying for Functional Skills.

Since 2015, maths and English has taken on an increased prominence in FE and training. During this time, there has been an increase in learners taking GCSE resits, mainly caused by changes in government policy and funding rules.

As part of a research project on aspirations and NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) young people, I wanted to explore feelings learners have about their attempts to achieve maths and English qualifications, allowing them to progress on to apprenticeships, higher level courses and sustainable employment. However, due to not passing GCSE maths and English, many of the young people felt they faced barriers to employment or further training.

Some of the young people told me they had found it hard to gain a place on an apprenticeship, with one young person being told to reapply when they had achieved their GCSEs in maths and English.

Another admitted he had chosen to do a catering course as it did not require him to have GCSE in maths and English. Before this he had never held any aspirations for a career in catering. This surprised me as he was planning his future career based on what he had not achieved, rather than any aspirations to work in a particular field.


Functional Skills versus GCSEs

I found the discussions about how young people saw Functional Skills in comparison to GCSEs to be enlightening. One young person explained how she had mixed feelings about Functional Skills. She felt they were giving her the opportunity to develop her skills and gain recognised qualifications. However, she also felt it would have been better if she had completed GCSEs, adding that she always felt worried when employers asked her what her qualifications were and having to reply that she only had Functional Skills.

This is a view which I'm glad is changing as highlighted in an Education and Training Foundation (ETF) report in 2015 which noted that Functional Skills was emerging as qualifications that are valued by employers. This trend has continued, with new research undertaken for Ofqual (Ofqual/Pye Tait Consulting 2017 p10) showing that Functional Skills are gaining in popularity, especially with larger employers.

This was reflected in the experiences shared with me by one young person about his time at school. Whilst there, he felt Functional Skills were a “step down” and aimed at those not on target to pass GCSEs. Although he achieved a grade C for GCSE maths, he had to resit his GCSE in English after achieving a grade D. When he was unsuccessful in his resit, he had to reframe his ambitions. He was introduced to Functional Skills at his training provider and was excited to be starting an apprenticeship in accountancy. He now felt he had a way he could succeed at English and begin a career where Functional Skills were valued.

Poignantly, one learner felt that GCSEs were too difficult for her, even though she had achieved a grade D for GCSE English. However, the fact she saw hope in her ability to pass Functional Skills was heartening, especially as they offered her the chance to build her confidence before potentially re-sitting her GCSEs or moving on to a higher level course.


The importance of maths and English

All 10 of the young people I spoke to were positive about Functional Skills. Some spoke of how the style of learning and exams suited them more, whilst others recognised they were learning valuable skills that would help in their studies and future employment. These young people recognised the importance of continuing to study for valuable skills. Some wanted to achieve GCSEs, whilst others saw Functional Skills as enabling them to progress on to their chosen career.

This mirrored new research undertaken for the ETF which found learners to be positive about Functional Skills. Some learners they spoke to were more interested in studying maths and English for work rather than GCSEs and agreed the subjects were vital to their future careers (Pye Tait Consulting 2015, p77).

However, all of the young people I spoke to felt the negative effects of not achieving GCSE maths and English at 16 on what courses they could choose and what careers would be open to them. Most of the young people had already attended other courses in different vocational subjects to what they are studying now. This corroborates some recent research I have read by Cornish (2017) who argues that GCSE in English and maths have become gateway qualifications, controlling access to apprenticeships and employment.

Although their attitudes in the classroom may be hiding their true feelings about maths and English, I found that overall young people recognise the importance of these valuable subjects to their future ambitions. By having conversations that allow young people to reflect on their likes and dislikes, and their hopes and fears, I feel confident they will be able to articulate what they need from maths and English qualifications.


More information

Find out more about CPD courses for maths and English teachers by visiting the ETF website.

Read about the Maths and English Functional Skills Reform Programme.



  • Cornish, C. (2017) Case study: level 1 Skills to Succeed (S2S) students and the gatekeeping function of GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) at an FE college. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 22(1), pp.7-21.
  • Education and Training Foundation (2015) Making maths and English work for all.
  • Ofqual/Pye Tait Consulting (2017) Employer Qualification Perceptions Survey-Final report.
  • Pye Tait Consulting (2015) The Data Source for Making Maths and English Work for All –Conversations and Desk Research.


Paul Smith has worked as a teacher and manager in training providers and FE colleges for 13 years. He has taught English, maths and employability to NEET young people and adult learners. He has an interest in the history of further education and recently completed an MPhil in Education at the University of Birmingham. Having taken time out of work to complete his research, Paul currently works as an interim manager and consultant.