Contexts Review Functional Skills English

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Hello and welcome to Pearson’s Functional Skills blog for October 2023. This month we will be looking at the recent context review for Functional Skills English which was started at the beginning of the year. 


Pearson first carried out a context review in 2019 as part of the reform of Functional Skills. The rationale behind this being that there was a need to understand the effects a context could have on a learner completing a Functional Skills assessment and to find suitable contexts that providers agree did not hinder the opportunities of success for any group of learners. Prior to the research, the topic of assessment questions contexts was a frequent topic of discussion at network events, since the research began, this has become far less widespread.  

What this research highlighted was how difficult it was to ensure that all learners had a similar level of access to the contexts. Pearson’s learners come from a wide range of ages, from 14 upwards and many differences in life experiences alongside these age ranges. Despite this, practitioners supported us to complete a list of suitable contexts which has been part of our supporting strategy since. 

In 2021, a small-scale piece of research was carried out to see how Pearson was doing regarding contexts to ensure that they continued to be inclusive. The outcome of this research was that Pearson was on the right track with comments from providers showing they were happy with the contexts. The research in 2023 is a much more robust piece of work, designed to highlight any flaws in our thinking regarding current contexts and suggest further contexts for future assessments. Personally, I have much more focus on inclusivity and SEND and want to ensure that the assessments we produce are as inclusive as they can be. This research also aims to reflect changes in the current market for Functional Skills and how that has changed since 2019.  

The 2023 data 

In total we had 76 responses to the online research. In addition, a number of one-to-one feedback sessions were carried out with practitioners and providers and 61 practitioners attended an online contexts workshop in April 2023. 

Below is a breakdown of the responses from the online research: 

We can see there is a varied cross section of funding types taking part in the research. 45% of all those responding had the word college in the name of their employer, which was a smaller percentage than for maths. We can also see that the spread of levels delivered was evenly distributed. 

What contexts work well with your learners? 

The key caveat to this is understanding the phrase ‘your learners’. They can be broken down into 14 – 16, 16 – 18 and 19+. What comes across from the responses is that the different age groups have different contexts that they relate to. As well as the additional potential vocational area of study for those in mainstream college education or taking apprenticeships. What we then get is a varied response based on niche groups of learners. Our research on Entry Level, for example, gave us the following information: 

This was based on the question, what is a suitable context for your learners? There are obviously overlaps here, those that said a medical centre was a suitable topic for adults did not then say music was not. In fact, one respondent said that for 14–18-year-olds the topic of employment was suitable as it was aspirational.  

Another respondent said 

Our learners have never expressed any concerns over the papers they have been given. We have never had any concerns or preferences with the live or practice entry reading papers. 

Things to consider for the future 

This does not, of course, mean that everything is perfect and that we cannot consider what could be done to improve our assessments and support. The following is a list of areas that we have raised out of the research, things that Pearson needs to consider. 

Avoid the need for cultural understanding to answer the question. This is especially true with the writing. Learners from more deprived backgrounds and non-native speakers may have less cultural experiences to base their answers on. 

Ensure that the topics are relevant for the majority of learners and try and ensure they are aspirational. If a learner can tap into their lived experience, it makes relating to the question much more straightforward. 

Can options in writing texts be considered? So, for example, when writing to apply for a job, the learners can apply for a position that they consider to be relevant to their current situation. 

Try and consider real life situations when someone might write a letter. Some learners do not even know that writing to a newspaper is a thing; maybe they could write to their MP instead. 

One of the key things that I do not believe is being fully taken advantage of is the number of assessments available at Entry Level. For Functional Skills Reading, we have eight assessments available. I do really recommend checking the context of these assessments to ensure that your learners are doing something that they can access. You have the freedom of choice here and your learners can sit different assessments if need be. 

On a similar note, the assessments from Entry Level writing can be contextualised if you feel your learners cannot access the topics we provide. 

The final months of 2023 will include more of a focus on Entry Level Functional Skills and will include exemplar contextualised assessments and much more support. 

The Next Steps 

This blog is part of the second stage of this current context review. In addition to this, there is a full internal document analysing the feedback which will be presented to the assessment team for discussion with the plan that amendments could be made to forthcoming assessments and ideas for new contexts taken on board. We look forward to having the opportunity to discuss this with you all further, thank you. 

Chris Briggs - Product Manager Post 16 English, Maths and Digital Skills