What are Functional Skills?

Functional Skills are the skills that were previously called Skills for Life. They are the skills we all need in our lives. Unions have been active for over 20 years in helping members and others to improve these skills, and will continue to do this, using Functional Skills.

Adults are well placed to engage with Functional Skills as applying problem solving in everyday contexts underpins the qualifications. This is exactly what adults have learned to do in their daily lives.

"Functional skills are practical skills in English, mathematics and information and communication technology (ICT) that allow individuals to operate confidently, effectively and independently in life and work." - Department for Education and Skills, 2006

With Functional Skills time needs to be devoted to developing the learner's ability to transfer skills to solving problems in real-life contexts; a learner centred approach involving build – practice – apply.

The skills are mapped to national adult literacy and numeracy core curricula within the levels of the Adult Literacy and Numeracy Standards.

FAQ for ULRs

What about qualifications?

In the final qualification assessment a wide range of skills is tested. Learners are assessed on their skills, and also on the way in which they apply these skills to a variety of test problems.

What should learners expect?

Key messages for learners include:

  • Initial assessments find out your individual strengths and learning needs. They help to make sure that any learning is at the right level, and tackles the right skill areas.
  • Learning centres and tutors will focus on helping you to develop the skills you will need in real life contexts and problem solving. So many of your workplace or home English and maths needs will be used to help you understand and improve your skills.
  • Final assessments can be either on paper, or using a computer. They will be about showing how you can apply your skills (and problem solve in realistic situations).

Some unions are reporting that Functional Skills courses are longer than previous literacy or numeracy courses. This is leading them to look again at learning agreements, and whether they need to be revised to take account of the learners' need for time off.


Apprentices who have not already achieved English and maths GCSE (C-A*) in English and maths will have to be offered learning towards either Level 2 Functional Skills or GCSEs. So, if your workplace has an apprenticeship programme, you need to make sure that Functional Skills are included, and are being properly assessed and taught by the employer and by providers. You will have a key role as a ULR in supporting the learners and ensuring that the quality of provision is good.

What about the old Skills for Life qualifications in English & maths? Do they still count?

Yes, they do. Anyone who has achieved a qualification in literacy or numeracy, has a recognised qualification. Because the Functional Skills qualification tests a wider range of skills, some learners may choose to take them or GCSEs, but they don't need to. They may not also be funded for it so it is always sensible to explore the funding situation first.

Where do I start as a ULR?

Speak to your union and local providers first on how Functional Skills could be delivered in your workplace.

Take also a look at the Excellence Gateway's Functional Skills Starter Kit.

Through its five sections, the Functional Skills Starter Kit provides links to useful resources and guidance, which will help those new to functional skills take the steps needed to get started. There are also materials for those currently delivering functional skills, to support quality improvement.

You may want to begin by using the Readiness tool in Section 2 for self-check and action-planning or go directly to any of the sections below to find information and resources: