How can ESOL Learners Progress to Functional Skills?

20 November 2013

With Government policy clearly stating that ESOL provision is expected to support learners’ progression to Functional Skills, it’s perhaps worth taking a few moments to reflect on what this entails. Clearly, this is one of those issues which brings into focus the relationship between English (adult literacy) and ESOL – areas which are both overlapping and specialisms in their own right.

Many ESOL practitioners will have strong arguments to make in support of the distinct and specialist nature of ESOL. For example, the use of Adult Literacy tests in ESOL is generally considered to have been inappropriate, and ESOL campaigners point out the need for rigorous and recognised ESOL qualifications. Philida Schellekens has reported on research evidence in support of this. She points out that a lack of assessment focus on ‘the nuts and bolts’ of the language – such as grammar and pronunciation – makes qualifications intended for native speakers unsuitable for those learning English as a second language.

As Schellekens argues, the risk is not so much that learners cannot access or even pass qualifications like Functional Skills, but that if they do, the lack of rigorous assessment of the language level supposedly attained does no favours to employers, admissions tutors and most importantly, the learners themselves – all of whom are entitled to an accurate and reliable indication of proficiency.

Yet it’s worth noting that in many contexts, there will be learners with ESOL needs already accessing Functional Skills English qualifications. Unlike some previous Adult Literacy qualifications, Functional Skills English does include speaking, listening and writing skills. The problem-solving approach which underpins Functional Skills is hardly new in language teaching, where ESOL teachers have always developed functional language alongside other language skills and knowledge

Learners with ESOL needs may be enrolled on Apprenticeships, where the frameworks specify Functional Skills. In some foundation learning provision, young adult ESOL learners work towards Functional Skills English. Increasingly, there are many contexts where adult ESOL learners take Functional Skills courses for reasons of affordability, location or both. And in some contexts, particularly urban multilingual communities, it may be less than clear who is an ‘ESOL learner’ and who is a ‘literacy learner’ anyway, as NRDC research points out.  In many of these settings, there may well be more that is needed to support ESOL learners to achieve and progress.

NIACE is reporting to BIS on ESOL learners’ progression to Functional Skills English and GCSE English language qualifications. This work aims to identify effective practice, and any challenges, in enabling ESOL learners to progress to Functional Skills English and GCSE English language. We are interested to hear about discrete ESOL and English provision, as well as vocational and work-based provision, where learners with language learning needs may be participating in programmes which include qualifications such as Functional Skills English, QCF unit-based qualifications in English skills or GCSE English language. ESOL providers not currently offering Functional Skills English qualifications to learners are also welcome to give their views on enabling ESOL learners’ progression.