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How The Open University’s English and maths provision opens doors to higher and degree apprenticeships


For 50 years, The Open University (OU) has given access to higher education to people from a diverse range of backgrounds. This has helped many people fulfil their potential throughout their career journey. As a University, the OU recognises that skills in English and maths - known as Functional Skills - are vital for people wishing to progress their careers in a wide range of fields. Since 2016, the OU has offered higher and degree apprenticeships. Qualifications in English and maths at Level 2 (GCSE or equivalent) are needed either as entry requirements, or must be attained while completing the apprenticeship. Functional Skills qualifications cover the Level 2 standards, and will be delivered as part of an apprenticeship if evidence of prior attainment is not available.

Why English and maths skills are vital in the workplace

In 2016, The Education and Training Foundation conducted an employer survey on English and maths skills.

The report observed:

“Employers need their workforces to have a good command of the basic skills, to be able to apply these more effectively in the workplace and to be competent in their job roles. Of particular importance are the skills of communicating well, (precisely and appropriately), writing accurately and comprehensibly, and being able to perform simple calculations and overcome work-based problems.”

Eve Hamilton, Vocational Qualifications Manager explained: “The Open University recognises the need to offer quality English and maths training that is flexible to fit around the lives of busy employees balancing work and study – for example around shift work. For apprenticeship programmes, the OU provides a flexible, scalable solution overseen by specialists in English and maths training. Achievement of Level 2 English and maths is a vital part of apprentices completing their learning programme and developing their 'work-ready' skills."

We see this as part of our mission to widen participation in our programmes and help employers benefit from a wider, more diverse talent pool.

Eve Hamilton
Vocational Qualifications Manager

Why these skills are vital in work-based apprenticeships

We all develop our English and maths skills throughout our lives, often due to the types of work we do. Some people lack formal qualifications for a variety of reasons - including issues around confidence and lack of opportunities earlier in their lives. Others may need to 'brush up' their skills if they learned them some time ago, or have challenges around learning a second language. Those undertaking an apprenticeship may require standalone Level 2 qualifications in English and maths in order to successfully complete the programme. The OU supports apprentices who require English and maths qualifications through its innovative ‘blended learning’ approach.

Lesley Hambrook, Functional Skills Tutor-assessor said: "In my experience, many learners have not been in learning for some time or have had a bad experience with English or maths, and sometimes feel reluctant to work on Functional Skills as part of their overall apprenticeship.

"I believe the first contact with the learner is crucial and if we put them at ease, this helps them to engage."

How we support skills development

Eve Hamilton explained: “The aim is to support individuals and prepare them for the qualifications they need as part of their apprenticeship. An online assessment determines the current working level of an individual. We then use online learning packages to support the acquisition of Level 2 skills. When they are ready, apprentices sit formal tests to gain their target qualification(s).

"We are a registered centre with City & Guilds for the delivery of Functional Skills qualifications in English and maths at Level 2. Level 2 is equivalent to a GCSE Grade A*-C or grade 5-9 in the new grading system. At the end, they have a ‘portable’ qualification that covers the Level 2 standards, and have gained skills which can effectively support their academic studies.”

Lesley Hambrook added: "The methods of learning we offer are remote, either by email or phone (with progress, information and feedback to given learners), or face-to-face support, which can be invaluable to the learner who has had a bad experience or lacks confidence. All learners are different in the way they want to learn and by communicating with the learner the tutor can determine the best method.

"Once the apprentices are engaged, they can see the benefits of the learning in both their personal and business life."

What the apprentices say…

More than 370 OU apprentices working for in excess of 185 employers have needed to do one or both Functional Skills qualifications (English and mathematics at Level 2), and have been registered to do so as part of their apprenticeship.

I like the online learning environment; it is easy to use and navigate from start to finish. My tutor is proactive, responsive and explains really well what I need to do and what the next step is. That makes my life a lot easier.

An apprentice undertaking qualifications in English and maths

Mark, an apprentice who has had OU training in Functional Skills, said: “My learning needs are the areas you use in academic learning that I’ve tended to use less during my working life. So things like adding fractions together. As for English, it was mainly correct punctuation and sentence structure, as I use email a lot. These skills over time have diminished in the fast-paced communication environment.”

Laney (who is studying maths) said: “I felt I had control of the pace of the work. My maths qualification has enabled me to continue to develop my professional career and it has opened more opportunities for me.”

Another maths learner, Janine, said: “Whenever I struggled on a particular area, the tools available enabled me to understand the requirements. It has helped me gain confidence in my work and personal life, especially when I need to help my son with his maths homework.”

My training has helped me to review my reports and emails for spellings, correct use of grammar, structure of the sentences and punctuation. It has also helped me to be aware of all my verbal communications. It is a great refresher and helps you unlearn all the bad habits that you may have acquired over the years. It’s like retaking your driving test after driving for over 30 years!

An apprentice undertaking a qualification in English

An English learner, Purvi, explained more: “My 1-2-1 sessions with an English tutor have helped me to work through my weak areas. It is a great refresher and helps you unlearn all the bad habits you may have acquired over the years. I am aware of spellings, sentence structures and punctuation in my reports and emails and my written assignment work. I have now passed the English Functional Skills tests and I am hoping that the time and effort I have invested will reap rewards.”


Delivering results

The OU’s commitment to these vital skills is being borne out in the pass rates being achieved by learners at Level 2. An impressive 93% have passed maths and 92% have passed English qualifications at their first attempt.

Apprentices have opportunities to re-sit tests if they are unsuccessful, following a period of targeted revision and additional learning where required. Lesley Hambrook said: "As a tutor, I feel very proud for the learner when I am able to tell them they have passed the English and maths qualifications. It is very satisfying for me to have helped them to achieve the qualifications."

To find out more about our Functional Skills provision, please contact us.

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