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Friday, 25 May, 2001, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
So what are Key Skills?
exam candidate
Students are struggling under the weight of new exams
The original reason for devising the Key Skills programme in the 1980s was an attempt to win over sceptical employers.

There are some teething problems

Qualifications authority
The complaint was that, for all their paper qualifications, teenagers coming into the workplace could not properly read, write or do arithmetic.

According to the Department for Education and Employment: "Key Skills are the general skills that we as individuals need to succeed both in working and in adult life.

"They are skills for which it is possible to set national standards and whose achievements can be objectively assessed."

But independent research on the roll-out of the qualification suggests all may not be going to plan.

What it covers:

  1. communication
  2. application of number
  3. information technology
  4. working with others
  5. improving own learning and performance
  6. problem solving.
It is available at four main levels stretching roughly from lower-grade GCSE to degree standard.

The first three "core" skills together form what is known as the Key Skills Qualification. It was introduced by the government last year as part of the Curriculum 2000 reforms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has a separate Core Skills qualification.


Candidates have to compile a portfolio of work, which is assessed within their place of study, then pass externally-set tests.

So that they do not have to do "the same thing twice" they can get "proxy" qualifications if the Key Skills work is already covered by their other qualifications.

For example, candidates who have good GCSE grades in maths and English would be exempt from the numeracy and communication tests at Level 2.

"The new tests give credibility and rigour to the new qualification," says the department.

But the complaint is that they also overburden teachers, colleges and students, and they suffer from a major problem which rather detracts from their reason for existing: Most people have never heard of Key Skills.

'Students loathe it'

Independent research on the new qualification is being carried out by London University's Institute of Education, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

"People are saying 'I'm trying to make the unworkable work'," said one of the research project directors, Dr Ken Spours, who completed his draft report on Friday.

"And all the students we have interviewed - more than 300 now - loathe it with a passion."

The institute's report argues that at Level 3 - taken by those doing A-levels or the equivalent - the emphasis should be on the "wider skills" such as problem solving and personal development.

But the emphasis at present is on the core skills of communication, information technology and numeracy - the "employability skills", which the institute says are more appropriate at GCSE level.

Employers still sceptical

A separate study by Cambridge University's school of education suggests that employers also think the wrong skills are being taught in schools.

Representatives of different-sized firms from various sectors put most value on qualities that form part of the wider skills, whereas schools were teaching the three core skills.

Key Skills units can count towards university entrance - at least in theory. They are awarded points on the revised "tariff" published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

So a Key Skills unit Level 3 is allotted 60 points, equivalent to a grade D at A-level.

In practice, the research suggests that universities are ignoring them.

Dr Spours said what the universities were saying was that they would like to see evidence of key skills, but that could be very diverse - for example, someone talking about their experience of a Duke of Edinburgh award.

What they were not asking for was the actual qualification.

'Teething problems'

His team's draft report says: "The narrow skill focus and assessment burden has meant that the Key Skills Qualification has not been embraced by the majority of advanced level students and has been almost universally rejected by selective schools. These factors have fatally undermined its recognition by universities."

The chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, David Hargreaves, said he did not expect any new qualification to settle down straight away.

"There are some teething problems with it," he said.

But he was rather pleased to get complaints that something his organisation was doing was too difficult for people.

"There is no question that in the colleges in particular, where students are doing Key Skills tests and four AS-levels, the demands have been very high and that's well known.

"What is still being assessed is the extent to which these are problems which are arising because it is the first year of Curriculum 2000, or are likely to be sustained problems.

"That's not entirely a matter for QCA but we are, with others, monitoring the whole impact."

But the Institute of Education says the "widespread" problems are much more than teething problems and concludes that "a shift in thinking is now essential"

"It is our view that the avoidance of such a reassessment will not only squander the goodwill which still exists towards the concept of key skills, but could irrevocably damage the prospect of 'key skills for all' and undermine the wider Curriculum 2000 reform process."

See also:

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