Negotiating brief for functional skills
This briefing is aimed at trade union reps and officers who negotiate with employers to help them bargain on learning and skills. It is important to integrate the issues mentioned in this briefing alongside other learning and skills and general bargaining topics.
What are functional skills?
You may be familiar with the terminology Skills for Life (numeracy, literacy and English for Speakers of Other Languages ESOL). The Government remains committed to this area of learning, but there have been some changes you will need to know about. For example, Skills for Life has been rebranded as maths and English; and a new functional skills set of qualifications has been introduced that recognise achievement, including as part of Apprenticeships.
There are some important changes to the new programmes and qualifications which have implications for negotiating employer support.
Functional skills have a greater focus on building practical skills in English, Maths and information and communication technology (ICT). Developing functional skills helps employees to apply English, maths and ICT in practical situations and choose techniques to solve problems in everyday life situations. After 31 August 2012 learners will be registered onto Functional Skills programmes instead of Skills for Life.
The Government has also recognised GCSE English and maths as appropriate outcomes for adults. In some cases, it may be difficult to negotiate the time required for GCSE courses; and employers (and learners) may prefer the functional skills route.
If a functional skills need has been identified through assessments, providers can access full funding to deliver learning in English and maths. ICT learning, although part of the functional skills suite of qualifications is, however, not fully funded.
Why are functional skills qualifications a bargaining issue?
From September 2012 onwards there will be changes on how English and maths are taught and assessed and some of the qualifications will be different too. These changes have implications on workplace learning on literacy and numeracy. The employers are likely to know little of the change and the implications. The first step for you as a union rep or officer is to make sure information on functional skills is shared with the employer.
Since functional skills are about applying practical skills, learners will need more time both for learning and taking the tests. Because functional skills learners will need longer on their courses, there will be a need for more employer support. The upside for employers is that the skills developed are practical, transferable and usable in the work environment. With regards to working with learning providers, there are questions about how functional skills are delivered, how accessible they are and the quality of the provision that Union Learning Reps or officers need to consider. Union and employer support will help members have access to meaningful learning opportunities, especially for those disadvantaged groups who will be able to gain useful everyday skills for study and employment through functional skills programmes.
Persuading employers to support functional skills at the workplace:
- Amend union strategy to include functional skills issues instead of Skills for Life
- Stress the practical advantages of functional skills. Employers have been asking for more practical qualifications and problem solving skills. Functional skills fits the bill.
- Important: New opportunities for adults to access English and maths include GCSEs free of charge. This acknowledges that employers often ask for them as entry requirements to certain jobs and regard them as the Gold Standard. They may see functional skills as stepping stones to a full GCSE.
- Make the point that with functional skills learners will quickly start applying their skills at the workplace and this will bring clear benefits to the business.
- Ensure that the learners who have previously started English and maths learning via Skills for Life are given the opportunity to progress to functional skills or GCSEs.
- Emphasise the fact that functional skills are free for learners with an assessed need and maths and English GCSEs to those who do have not yet gained these GCSE subjects.
- Remind the employer that supporting staff to achieve these GCSEs or functional skills will build the broad platform of skills needed to enable better engagement with follow-on training and dealing with the changing demands of workplaces. All jobs are changing; developing staff will help business keep up with, or even ahead, of others in your industry.
- Manage change process by keeping learners, providers and employers in the loop - build a communication plan with reps, Union Learning Reps and learning centres
- Ensure the equality of access to learning for disadvantaged groups such as part time workers, those with caring duties, disabled or shift workers. English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) learners working towards English qualifications will need longer time to complete compared to native English speakers because of their different starting points.
- Consider impact on apprenticeships
- If functional skills are perceived harder to achieve than key skills there might be an impact on attainment - build support plans and mechanisms that include employers and Union Learning Reps.
- If learners with few formal qualifications need time to achieve functional skills and GCSEs, employers may be tempted to recruit apprentices who already have GCSEs. This would have an impact on those accessing apprenticeships - equality and diversity plans need to be made or revisited.
Potential bargaining goals
- Negotiate paid time off for learning for learners to move seamlessly to the new qualifications system and be supported with any possible extra time needed to complete functional skills courses
- Paid time off for ULRs to engage and support learners and explore the provision on offer
- Use existing learning centres or consider setting up new ones
- Address Functional Skills within Apprenticeship provision and ensure equality of access
- Include functional skills initial assessments in induction training
- Update learning agreement to include functional skills and time off to learn arrangements and any other support mechanisms
- Agree an action plan that sets out employer commitment and the ULR role to facilitate a smooth transition to functional skills learning
- Check with unionlearn to keep in touch with developments. For example, new short 'stepping stone' qualifications are in development, that may in future better suit the needs of learners.
- Understanding Functional Skills
- Qualification changes
- Unionlearn regions and their events
- Delivering better learning agreements guide
- Negotiator's guide for Bargaining for Skills
Model learning agreement for functional skills
The partners named in this agreement recognise the importance of everyone in the workplace having functioning English and maths skills. The partners agree that all staff is to be encouraged and supported to achieve GCSE level 2 in English and maths. To achieve this, the partners agree that:
- All staff have access to functional skills initial assessments [in the union-led learning centre]. All new staff are introduced to the offer of assessments during the company induction programme by ULRs.
- All results of individual assessments are confidential to the individual member of staff. However, aggregate data on overall staff levels of need could be made available.
- The assessment helps determine the starting level of courses for the learner and what they need according to their individual learning plan.
- Functional skills learners are granted necessary paid time off to take the initial assessments and undertake learning until they achieve their learning goals, up to and including GCSEs. This includes paid time off to sit external examinations and demonstrating practical application of skills.
- Functional skills initial assessments, access to courses in English and maths and GCSEs in these subjects are included in existing staff development programmes.
- Learners with identified specific learning difficulties, e.g. dyslexia, are assisted to access additional expert support.
- Union Learning Reps (ULRs) support English and maths learners with advice and information and the learners can access this service during working hours. Progression to further learning is also encouraged and explored.
- The workplace learning committee invites the learning provider/s to a meeting/meetings to discuss the implications of changes to qualifications and quality of provision.