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National Curriculum

Functional skills


What are functional skills?

Functional skills are those core elements of English, mathematics and ICT that provide individuals with the skills and abilities they need to operate confidently, effectively and independently in life, their communities and work. Individuals possessing these skills are able to progress in education, training and employment and make a positive contribution to the communities in which they live and work.

The functional skills standards are embedded in the revised programmes of study for English, mathematics and ICT. However, functionality within the curriculum is not limited to these subjects. The curriculum opportunities in the programmes of study for all subjects encourage working beyond the school and making links with other subjects and many key processes have the potential for functional skills development.

Principles of functional skills

Functional skills should be integrated into the curriculum. To be effective, functional skills teaching must be relevant and allow learners to engage with real situations in the real world.

Learners need opportunities to:

  • apply their skills in plausible contexts or use their skills for real purposes
  • engage with the world beyond the classroom
  • integrate learning by linking knowledge within and between the functional areas
  • spend time planning and developing their work
  • make choices and decisions, think creatively and act independently
  • experience success in real situations as a result of using their skills effectively.


Functional skills in the curriculum

Functional skills are embedded in the revised programmes of study for English, mathematics and ICT. In addition, all subjects provide rich opportunities to develop functional skills. For example geography requires learners to undertake fieldwork, providing an excellent opportunity to apply mathematics and ICT functional skills in a real context with a meaningful outcome.

In citizenship, the key processes identified as ‘Taking informed and responsible action’ offer learners the opportunity to take action to improve their community. For example, they could organise a campaign for a new crossing at a local accident hotspot. This would involve pupils writing to key people to gather information, which they then process and analyse. Results and recommendations could be communicated in a written report or in a structured discussion and presentation.

However, individual subjects by themselves are unlikely to provide the complete range of experiences and practical opportunities learners need. The wider school curriculum provides functional skills opportunities, for example:

  • going beyond lessons and building on learners’ wider experiences

  • working across subjects, linking elements from the three core functional subjects.

All learning experiences should be part of a coherent set and functional skills objectives should be identified for each activity. To have a meaningful impact, the curriculum should encourage learners to use skills in an integrated way. For example, in English, it is likely that most real-life contexts to solve problems or take action would involve a combination of reading, writing, speaking and listening rather than dealing with each area in isolation.

Functional skills and English, mathematics and ICT

The revised programmes of study for English, mathematics and ICT embed the knowledge, skills and understanding necessary to develop functional skills (level 1 at key stage 3 and level 2 at key stage 4).

The key concepts in these subjects underpin the functional elements including: competence (English, mathematics) and capability (ICT); critical understanding (English, mathematics) and critical evaluation (ICT). The key concept of creativity (English, mathematics) also has an important role to play in developing the aptitudes, attitudes and behaviours that enable young people to play a full role in the workplace, in education and in their wider communities. In its widest sense, creativity is concerned with flexibility of thinking, responsiveness to unfamiliar situations and ideas and the ability to use skills and critical thinking in appropriate ways.


Functional English skills

Individuals with functional English skills are confident and capable when using the skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. They are able to:

  • communicate effectively, adapting to a range of audiences and contexts

  • explain information clearly and succinctly in speech and writing

  • express a point of view reasonably and persuasively

  • use ICT to communicate effectively

  • read and understand information and instructions, then use this understanding to act appropriately

  • analyse how ideas and information are presented, evaluating their usefulness, for example in solving a problem

  • make an oral presentation or write a report

  • contribute to discussions and use speech to work collaboratively to agree actions and conclusions. 

More about functional skills in English at key stage 3

More about functional skills in English at key stage 4


Functional mathematics skills

Individuals with functional mathematics skills understand a range of mathematical concepts and know how and when to use them. They:

  • have the confidence and capability to use mathematics to solve increasing complex problems

  • are able to use a range of tools, including ICT as appropriate

  • possess the analytical and reasoning skills needed to draw conclusions, justify how these conclusions are reached and identify errors or inconsistencies

  • are able to validate and interpret results, judging the limits of the validity and using the results effectively and efficiently.

More about functional skills in mathematics at key stage 3

More about functional skills in mathematics at key stage 4


Functional ICT skills

Individuals with functional ICT skills are confident and capable when using ICT systems and tools to meet a variety of needs in a range of contexts. They are able to:

  • use ICT to find, select and bring together relevant information

  • develop, interpret and exchange information for a purpose

  • apply ICT safely to enhance their learning and the quality of their work. 

More about functional skills in ICT at key stage 3

More about functional skills in ICT at key stage 4

Planning for functional skills

Schools who have integrated functional skills into the curriculum have found their pupils are motivated by the broader curriculum and enjoy working independently and flexibly. Their pupils are better able to transfer skills between subjects and to apply their skills in a range of contexts.

When planning to include functional skills in the curriculum you need to consider:

  • what you are trying to achieve
  • how you will organise the curriculum to achieve your aims
  • how well you are achieving your aims.


What are you trying to achieve?

Begin by identifying your functional skills priorities. What are your learners’ strengths and weaknesses in terms of functional skills? Which functional skills do you want to develop? Worksheet 1: Identifying functional skills priorities provides a template for determining a baseline for each priority and setting long- and short-term goals. At this stage, it is important that you determine where you are now so that you can assess progress and know when you have achieved your goals.

For each functional skills priority you will need to be clear about what learners need to know and understand, be able to do and experience to achieve your long-term goals. Record your objectives in Worksheet 2: Defining functional skills priorities.

Further guidance on identifying what you are trying to achieve


How will you organise the curriculum to achieve your priorities?

There are many approaches to developing functional skills including:

  • through subjects, with links across subjects being made through common topics or themes
  • separately timetabled thematic days, activity weeks and events, often including block timetabling
  • activities integrated into the routines of the school, such as running a mini-enterprise or community event.

The functional skills case studies illustrate a variety of approaches taken by a range of schools.

In order to deliver functional skills you will need to consider how to make best use of:

  • time
  • staffing, including teachers and mentors
  • space and facilities
  • resources and equipment
  • approaches to teaching, learning and assessment.

Worksheet 3: Achieving your functional skills priorities provides a template to record your decisions.

Further information on organising learning to achieve aims


How will you know when you have achieved your aims?

If you really want to know if your curriculum development work is having the desired impact on your learners, you need to establish a clear baseline and then carry out regular, planned evaluations to check the progress of your work.

For each functional skills priority, consider what evidence you need to collect in order to show progress. Remember that you only need to collect evidence that is directly relevant to each aim.

Evaluation should be an ongoing process and planning specific opportunities to gather, analyse and act on the information you collect needs to be part of your curriculum development journey.

Further information on assessing how well you are achieving your aims

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