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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 February, 2005, 02:54 GMT
Whatever happened to key skills?
student working at computer
The Key Skills qualification has not proved a success
Education ministers are promising a new focus on basic literacy and maths skills among secondary school students in England.

The promise is an acknowledgement that the last attempt has failed.

Youngsters are already supposed to be tested in "key skills" of communication, "application of number" and information technology (IT).

Key Skills were introduced only in 2000 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with similar Core Skills in Scotland.


The tests were supposed to be the answer to employers' complaints that even youngsters with A-levels lacked basic workplace skills.

Those complaints remain the same to this day.

On the latest official figures, more than 360,000 people have taken Key Skills qualifications - mostly at the ages of 16 and 17.

But only 18% of them did all three subjects.

Assessment involves tests and portfolios of work.

But students who have the equivalent of grades A* to C at GCSE level in English, maths and ICT do not also have to have Key Skills.

Trying again

The review of 14 to 19 learning in England by Sir Mike Tomlinson concluded that new tests of "functional" numeracy and literacy were needed.

Sir Mike said that GCSE English and maths certainly did not fit the bill.

The government has been suggesting that it will address this issue in its response to the Tomlinson report, expected this week.

There are also "wider key skills" in working with others, improving one's own learning and performance, and problem solving.

These are due to become qualifications from this September.


Research by London University's Institute of Education suggested employers regarded these wider skills as the more important.

One of the problems hindering the take-up of Key Skills is that universities do not rate them.

Although in theory they are worth points towards university entry, the entry requirements for 2004 published by the admissions service, Ucas, showed that only 49% of institutions had at least one course where Key Skills tariff points were counted towards an offer of a place.

And the Institute of Education researchers found there was another fundamental problem when Key Skills were introduced: students loathed them.

The Department for Education and Skills says that online testing, with more than 100,000 passes to date, has "boosted learner motivation and first-time pass rates".

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