Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Moments that matter

One of my Functional Skills students, a young lad with a family history, and personal experiences that make you weep just to think about it, always disliked maths lessons.

The last few weeks though, he'd started to show some interest and compete to be first with the answer and I encouraged him as best I could in a class that sometimes resembles an angry, underfed, nicotine addicted zoo. He slowly let slip, in rare moments, that he'd never had any encouragement to do anything and it broke my heart to hear how he had rarely had Christmas presents and never a birthday cake.

Last week, he took his Functional Skills Level 1.

Today, I told him that he had passed and at 97% and I gave him a huge chocolate cake, with icing and sprinkles to celebrate.

The look on his face will stay with me forever.

Nothing can beat teaching when moments like that happen.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Not so functional skills

Few, if any of the Level 2 qualifications are really fit for purpose for all learners. GCSE is antiquated and barely accessible to many FE students now. Functional Skills, which nicely filled a gap has become a difficult qualification for those who are most in need.

Functional as the qualification is, many of our learners are not.

Many have never booked a holiday for four people, many live in families where no one has ever booked a holiday for four people – their life experiences are so far outside the happy, family orientated, reasonably affluent, middle class world of Functional Skills as to be alien.

The mathematical content is becoming more obscured in Ladybirdesque ‘Janet and John’ scenarios and narrative. Many are NEETS, learners from broken homes, those who live in hostels and have been shunted from school to PRU to ‘special education establishments’ before washing up in the offices of the learning providers or Entry level programmes at a college. This is not the fault of the training providers or colleges, who do everything they can to help them through the qualification but the qualification itself.

Functional Skills is written for a particular demographic and we are asking a significant number of students outside of that demographic, to inhabit an imaginary world they cannot begin to imagine in order to solve a mathematical problem. How many of us, at 16 had booked a family holiday, negotiated our own phone contract, purchased large amounts of food, a DJ, a village hall for a birthday celebration or took 7 friends with us on a trip to a zoo requiring a change of buses, trains, using a credit card etc.?

We asking these students to use life experiences they will not develop for many years, if at all, to solve mathematical problems they are have not yet experienced in their own lives. Often, this lack of experience is generational, particularly in areas of high and persistent unemployment.

Does this lack of life experience hinder them? I believe it does and that Functional Skills, whilst a great idea in principle, is letting down those who would benefit most from it.

Functional Skills should be far more employment related, not rooted in the fantasy of 'happy families'. Students need to learn skills that they can see directly relating to their employment hopes, good generic office skills, clear budgeting skills and interpersonal skills. 

For years the cry in GCSE classes has been 'when will I ever use Algebra', the cry now in FS classrooms is 'when will I ever need to book a holiday, no one in our family has been abroad, ever, can't afford it mate'.

If we are going to teach Functional Skills (and yes, we should), then let's make it relevant to those who will benefit most from achieving it.