Functional Skills Qualifications: The first decade

Ten years after they were launched, this briefing looks at the future of Functional Skills Qualifications and the levelling-up agenda

What are Functional Skills Qualifications?
What is the history of Functional Skills Qualifications?
Subject Content and Assessment
How do Level 2 FSQs differ from GCSEs in Maths and English?
Current Functional Skills Qualifications Provision and Entries
Issues with Functional Skills Qualifications
Functional Skills Qualifications and the Future
AuthorEvie Matthews, Policy Analyst, AQA


There is a renewed policy focus on literacy and numeracy following disruption to learning wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

For example, research has found that Year 1 pupils’ attainment in reading and mathematics was significantly lower in spring 2021 compared to spring 2019, representing a ‘Covid-19 gap’ of around three months’ progress.[1]

More widely, the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and debate around young people leaving education without core skills[2] has focused attention on the attainment and measurement of literacy and numeracy, both among young people and the wider population.

Against this backdrop, the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi has announced that a White Paper will be published on literacy and numeracy in 2022.[3]

A notable feature of debate on literacy and numeracy is the lack of attention and discussion of longstanding, dedicated qualifications that enable young people and adults of any age to be accredited in these skills - Functional Skills Qualifications (FSQs) - despite the hundreds of thousands that are awarded each year.

Successfully tackling longstanding shortfalls in literacy and numeracy in the population will require policymakers and stakeholders to understand fully the impact of, and learn from, existing qualifications.

FSQs deserve special attention given their focus on certifying literacy and numeracy, and the evidence that is now available regarding their impact during the decade since they were first awarded.

This briefing therefore explores:

  • What are FSQs?
  • What is the history of FSQs?
  • FSQ subject content and assessment
  • Current FSQ provision and entries
  • Issues with FSQs
  • FSQs and the future

What are Functional Skills Qualifications?

Functional Skills Qualifications (FSQs) are basic skills qualifications offered in three subjects:

  • Mathematics
  • English
  • Digital Skills

For each of these subjects, different FSQs are available reflecting different levels of subject content:

  • Entry level 1
  • Entry level 2
  • Entry level 3
  • Level 1 (roughly equivalent to GCSE grades 3 to 1 or D to G)
  • Level 2 (roughly equivalent to GCSE grades 9 to 4 or A* to C).

Unlike qualifications targeted at young adults, FSQs enable anyone to develop and showcase their knowledge of the basic fundamentals of literacy, numeracy and ICT skills.

To accommodate different learners, the qualifications are designed to be highly flexible - typically requiring 45-55 hours learning hours.

Whilst they can be taken as standalone qualifications, FSQs also enable post-qualification progression and further study – for example, qualifying for FSQs is one of the preconditions for entry to Intermediate Level Apprenticeships.[4]

Moreover, when taken chronologically, the qualifications allow learners to develop pragmatic skills, with less emphasis on the knowledge and skills associated with more academic qualifications.

For FSQs in English, this ranges from learning objectives around responding to verbal communication and writing straightforward documents with a basic grasp of grammar at Entry Level, leading up to writing compound sentences and identifying different purposes of straightforward texts at Level 2.[5]

Similarly, within Mathematics FSQ specifications, Entry Level is designed as a prerequisite for Level 1 and 2 qualification, whereby the latter is “a qualification for work, study and life”. Therefore, whilst students learn the fundamental mathematical knowledge and skills in the preliminary course, latter levels are designed to provide learners with skills that are relevant and in-demand in the workplace - for example, data manipulation and visualisation.[6]

Entry level FSQs are internally assessed by centres, partly to enable assessment tasks to be adapted by teachers to reflect situations in which their students may use the skills being assessed. In contrast, Level 1 and Level 2 FSQs are set and marked by exam boards.

Unlike academic qualifications such as GCSEs, FSQs are graded with a simple Pass and Fail.

Level 1 and 2 examinations can sometimes be sat throughout the academic year. However, they are often limited to fixed dates set internally by awarding organisations. For example, AQA has Level 1 and FSQ examinations running in January, March, May and November each year.[7]

What is the history of Functional Skills Qualifications?

In July 2007, the government launched the White Paper World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch Review of Skills in England.[8] Functional skills were highlighted as integral to the long-term mission of enhancing the employability of sub-groups in the national working-age population.

The White Paper argued for a greater focus on standardising basic numeracy, literacy and IT, and proposed revised GCSEs in English, maths and ICT (including functional skills). The White Paper also proposed free-standing functional skills qualifications, which were positioned as having a specific social policy aim - assisting the improvement of job prospects for the unemployed and reducing long-term benefit dependency amongst the “fit-for-work”.

In 2019, the Department of Education (DfE) reformed aspects of FSQs. More specific, common content was introduced with greater emphasis on the underpinning knowledge and skills that learners need. Ofqual also took this opportunity to reform the design and delivery of FSQs, focused on improving comparability between the qualifications over time and across different awarding organisations.[9] On-demand assessment and Pass/Fail grading remained. However, the number of guided learning hours increased to 55. Overall, the policy objective was to make qualifications and specifications better aligned to employer demand in terms of knowledge, skills and attainment.[10]

Subject Content and Assessment

The subject content and learning aims of FSQs in English and Maths are determined by the DfE.[11]

The qualifications have been designed to have workplace relevance and develop a learner’s basic verbal and written skills. As a result, since their inception, exam formats have limited the number of open-response exercises in favour of information retrieval and simple response questions.[12]

Students enrolled for September 2019 were subjected to changes in the curriculum and the integration of “specific common content.” For English, this involved the long-term recall of spelling, grammar and punctuation to reduce a learner’s dependency on dictionaries and spell-checking tools. Similarly, FSQ Maths students were expected to exhibit an ability to solve mathematical problems without the aid of a calculator.[13]

Listed below are examples of the current subject content at different FSQ levels for English[14] and Maths[15]:


Entry Level:

  • Correctly apply punctuations (e.g., full stops, capital letters and question marks)
  • Complete forms asking for personal information (data of birth, forename, surname, postcode etc.)
  • Listen to and respond to other points of view and respect turn-taking
  • Understand organisations markers in short, straightforward texts
  • Extract and identify main information from short texts.

Level 1:

  • Identify main themes and information in explanations or presentations
  • Compare information, ideas and opinions from different texts
  • Apply punctuation to assist understanding of straightforward texts
  • Correctly spell, work, day and study-specific terminology
  • Identify different sub-groups of words: formal, informal, explanatory, persuasive etc.
  • Formulate responses to detailed questions.

Level 2:

  • Appropriately apply context-specific terminology in discussions and writing
  • Support arguments with relevant and persuasive evidence
  • Using appropriate language to interject and redirect conversations
  • Identify over meanings in texts
  • Applying broad range of punctuation markers (commas, inverted commas, colons etc.)
  • Construction of complex sentences- appropriately developing these into paragraphs.


Entry Level:

  • Reading, write and compare numbers up to 20
  • Using whole numbers- and 0- to count up to 20 items
  • Appropriately recognising plus, minus and equals signs
  • Correctly applying positional vocabulary to describe an object (up, down, left, right)
  • Recognising and assigning appropriate symbols to pounds (£) and pennies (p)
  • Reading 12-hour digital analogue clock in hours
  • Identifying and labelling 2D and 3D objects (cube, rectangle etc.)

Level 1:

  • Reading, write, order and compare large numbers (up to one million)
  • Working with basic ratio and proportions
  • Add, subtract and multiply decimals up to two decimal places
  • Calculate the square numbers of 1 and 2 digital figures
  • Order, compare and write numbers up to 3 decimal places
  • Visually represent discrete data (diagrams, charts, line graphs etc.)

Level 2:

  • Read, write, order and compare any positive and negative number
  • Calculate relative percentage changes
  • Calculate using compound measures (e.g., speed and density)
  • Calculate the median and mode of given data
  • Interpret and solve problems related to positive and negative coordinates
  • Compare data using mean, median, mode and range.


Entry Level:

  • Learning how a device function (wireless versus wired networks)
  • Applying system changes, such as changing screen brightness, turning phone on and off and connecting to a network
  • Communicating simple messages via different messaging platforms (email, video-call, text etc.)
  • Basic understanding of online safety and using authentication methods and executing basic security practices to avoid malware infection  

Level 1:

  • Understanding broader device functions such as limitations to file sizes; appropriate file naming techniques and the role of advertisements in search results
  • Executing creating and editing software such as word-processing tools and web-presentation software
  • Knowing how to back up documents to a word cloud

How do Level 2 FSQs differ from GCSEs in Maths and English?

The easiest way to summarise the difference between GCSE Maths and Level 2 FSQ Maths is in terms of breadth of attainment and content.

GCSE Maths covers a much broader spectrum of attainment i.e. GCSE questions must be designed to differentiate at all grades whereas the FSQ is a pass/fail qualification, so the demand range is narrower.

GCSE Maths also covers a broader range of content than a FSQ. For example, there is negligible algebra in the FSQ Maths and geometry is also limited. In part, this is reflected in the difference in ‘guided learning hours (GLH) - 120 for GCSE (and often more in practice) compared to 55 for the FSQ.

Similarly, Maths FSQs differ from GCSE by asking students to recall a limited range of skills which largely relate to numeric systems - such as ratios, percentages and fractions. In contrast, GCSE Maths assessments require students to apply their knowledge to identify appropriate equations and solutions within scenario-based styled questions.

In relation to English, GCSE English Language covers a broader range of skills than the Level 2 FSQ, which is limited to underpinning (basic) fluency and problem solving in realistic contexts.

For example, in FSQ English, course material covered is limited to functional and non-literary sources, such as newspaper articles. In addition, the FSQ is structured by instructional questions whereby students are overtly directed to write in a particular form, style and genre. For GCSE students, these instructions are not given and students are required to interpret the appropriate themes from a given text, and are also required to write creatively.

Current Functional Skills Qualifications Provision and Entries

In the early years following their launch, between 2009-2014, FSQs were increasingly popular with entries growing to 400,000, 360,000 and 245,000 for Level 1, Level 2 and Entry Qualifications respectively.[16]

However, in its most recent (2019-20) annual qualifications market report, the exams regulator Ofqual found that entries to FSQs were declining:[17]

This report also found that the market remains dominated by two providers: Pearson and City and Guilds of London Institute. This reflects the fact that these providers are the only ones to offer qualifications across English, Maths and ICT.

Number of certificates by subject and level

Nevertheless, potentially reflecting the flexible nature of FSQs, Ofqual recently highlighted that the Covid-19 pandemic had not deterred FSQ entries. Between March to July 2021, 525,000 assessments were completed through face-to-face assessment and a further 50,000 were undertaken through online invigilation.[18]

Entries to Level 2 FSQs are significantly driven by the government’s conditions of funding for Level 3 study, which require students with a grade 2 or below in GCSE Maths or English to study toward a FSQ. The Level 2 requirement that students with a grade 3 in Maths or English work resit the qualifications with aim of achieve a grade 4 or higher has also contributed to the decline in FSQ uptake.[19]

Issues with Functional Skills Qualifications

Since their launch over a decade ago, stakeholders have flagged a number of issues with FSQs.

Qualification standardisation

Various concerns vocalised by business groups and employers have coalesced around the issue of qualification standardisation. Whilst these groups are generally supportive of the flexible and age-inclusive format of FSQs, as well as curriculum design that focuses on practical skills, they have called for more attention on ensuring consistent specification designs among providers.[20]

Specific issues with course design

Some criticism of FSQs has been directed toward course design, in particular, how different areas of specifications - such as body language and non-verbal communication through video-chat technology - can be assessed comprehensively. It has also been suggested that tone and style criteria may disproportionately benefit older learners with a more developed understanding of social cues and human interaction.[21]

Variations in pass rates

The largest provider of FSQs, Pearson, recently published analysis of sub-group performance for Level 1 and Level 2 students, which also provided insight into the successes and limitations to FSQs as a means to upskill the population.[22] Three notable trends were identified:

  • those learners that take assessments more than once or twice are not necessarily successful and those who fail first time, tend to fail in their second attempt. This may reflect the low-stakes nature of the assessments, learner (in)experience with the assessment design and criteria, or limited 1:1 contact with teachers
  • disparities in English and Maths pass rate, and a higher proportion failing Maths in their first and second attempts
  • higher pass rates in the over-24s – this could be related to the motivation of this sub-group of learners, for example, to progress their careers or lift their earnings.

Employer understanding

Survey research undertaken in 2020 and commissioned by Ofqual into perceptions of vocational qualifications finds that many employers have limited understanding of FSQs.[23]

The lack of understanding of FSQs among some employers suggests is significant given the risk to the currency of FSQs who have taken the qualification.

Employer views of subject content

Research undertaken in 2020 and commissioned by Ofqual found differing views among employers of whether FSQs awarded an appropriate level of knowledge and skill for their organisation.[24]

Around a quarter (27%) of employers agreed that those holding FSQs have the appropriate level of skill in numeracy needed by their organisation. Large (48%) and medium (40%) employers were significantly more likely than average to believe this.

Large (53%) and medium-sized (42%) employers were more likely than micro-employers (29%) to agree that people holding FSQs have the appropriate level of English needed by employers.

Functional Skills Qualifications and the Future

FSQs differ from traditional academic qualifications in multiple respects - they are more flexible in the timing of assessment, they are graded pass/fail, they can be taken by anyone at any age.

However, many of the ongoing issues and questions for FSQs are similar to those experienced by other qualifications, including GCSEs and A-levels, for example:

  • could subject content be improved?
  • do the assessments disadvantage certain types of any students?
  • do the qualifications command sufficient currency with employers and educational institutions?

Renewed debate about literacy and numeracy, and the expectation of a government White Paper in 2022, mean that it is more important than ever to carefully study the impact and evolution of FSQs over their first decade, including from the changes to FSQs that were made by the government in recent years.

[1] Rose, S. et al (2021, July 2) Impact of school closures and subsequent support strategies on attainment and socio-emotional wellbeing in Key Stage 1: Interim Paper 2. Education Endowment Foundation.

[2] For example, see ASCL. (2019). The Forgotten third: Final report of the Commission of Inquiry.

[3] Whittaker, F. (2021, 4 October). The education secretary addressed the Conservative Party conference. Schools Week.

[4] Department for Education. (2018). Specification of apprenticeship standards for England. [White paper].

[5] Department for Education. (2018). Subject Content Functional Skills English. [Guidance].

[6] Department for Education. (2018).  Subject Content Functional Skills Mathematics. [Guidance].

[7] AQA. “Key Date Calendar”.

[8] HM Government. (2007). World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch Review of Skills in England. [White paper].   pp. 4, 13-16.

[9] Beach, P. (2019, April 12). Reform of Functional Skills qualifications in English and maths. Ofqual Blog.

[10] Beach, P. (2019, April 12). Reform of Functional Skills qualifications in English and maths. Ofqual Blog.

[11] Department for Education. (2018). Subject Content Functional Skills English. [Guidance].; Department for Education. (2018).  Subject Content Functional Skills Mathematics. [Guidance].

[12] Ofqual. (2012). Criteria for Functional Skills Qualifications. [Guidance].

[13] The Ofqual Blog. 12 April 2019. “Reform of Functional Skills qualifications in English and maths”. [Online].

[14] Department for Education. (2018). Subject Content Functional Skills English. [Guidance]. pp. 6-11.

[15] Department for Education. (2018).  Subject Content Functional Skills Mathematics. [Guidance]. pp. 6-12.

[16] Ofqual. (2015). Improving Functional Skills Qualifications. [Report].

[17]Ofqual. (2021).  Annual Qualification Markers Report: 2019-2020 academic year. [Statistics Overview].

[18] Scott, M. (2021, July 30). The Ofqual blog: More than half a million functional skills qualifications taken despite pandemic. The Ofqual blog.

[19] See Education and Skills Funding Agency. (2014, December 4). 16 to 19: maths and English condition of funding. [Guidance].

[20] Education & Training Foundation. (2015, March 25). New major report finds support for Functional Skills.

[21] Sugarman, I. (2019, May 21). Facing up to the challenges of the reformed functional skills. FE Week.

[22] Pearson. (2021, August 31). Functional Skills Pass Rate.

[23] Yougov. (2020). Perceptions of Vocational and Technical Qualifications in England.

[24] Yougov. (2020). Perceptions of Vocational and Technical Qualifications in England.

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