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Functional skills qualifications: What are they?

Functional skills qualifications give you knowledge and skills in maths, English and ICT which you can apply to real-life situations in work, study and your personal life.

If you’re thinking about doing an apprenticeship and don’t have C+ (grade 4+ from 2017) in English and maths GCSE, you may need one or more functional skills qualifications to get onto your scheme.

Here, we explain what functional skills qualifications are and how you can get them.

What are functional skills?

Functional skills qualifications are available in three subjects:

They are designed to teach you three things in each of these subjects:

  • Knowledge
  • Understanding
  • Skills

Functional skills qualifications are designed to give you practical knowledge, which means you can take what you learn and apply it directly to your work and study – and even your personal life.

They are available at three levels:

  • Entry levels 1, 2 and 3: These are mainly for people re-entering learning after a break, hence “entry level”.
  • Level 1: The same as getting a GCSE grade D-G (2017 grade 1-3) in that subject.
  • Level 2: Like getting a GCSE grade A*-C (2017 grade 9-4).

Functional skills replaced a set of older qualifications called “key skills”.

Why do I need them?

Functional skills are designed to give you the basic knowledge you need to do well work – and life in general! Just as importantly, they help you develop the ability to apply this knowledge in real-life situations.

All apprentices have to have functional skills in maths and English, but many people don’t need to take functional skills qualifications. This is because you learn functional skills at school or college from Year 7 upwards, and are tested for them through your GCSEs.

Working round a table graphicIf you get Cs or above (2017 4+) in your English, maths and ICT GCSEs, this is the same as having level 2 functional skills qualifications in these subjects. That means you qualify to do an intermediate apprenticeship.

If you don’t get C+/4+ in English or maths GCSE, you could choose to do a functional skills qualification instead of resitting your GCSEs.

Lots of apprenticeship providers let apprentices study for their functional skills while they work towards their apprenticeship, which means you don’t have to wait before applying for an apprenticeship.

Because functional skills focus on the practical application of the subjects, you might find it easier to apply what you learn to real life.

'You need functional skills to do an apprenticeship—but don't have to resit your GCSEs'

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What will I learn?

Remember, functional skills are meant to be practical – they teach you stuff you can apply to your life, work and learning. This means that in maths, you’ll learn to do things like rounding, recognising patterns and using fractions, but the focus will be on how you can use these skills in real life.

For your level 2 functional skills in English, you’ll learn to:

  • Contribute to discussions.
  • Present information.
  • Understand pieces of writing, compare them and use them to form opinions and make arguments.
  • Create pieces of writing to get ideas across clearly and persuasively.

In maths, you’ll learn to:

  • Learn to understand and solve simple problems.
  • Use maths to check information.
  • Interpret numbers in real-life situations.

In ICT, you’ll learn:

  • To use computer programmes to help you in life and work.
  • To use files, folders and media to store information – whether that’s in a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet or online.
  • The best way to find information by searching.
  • How to use computer programmes to present information in the best way.

Do I have to sit a test?


The level 2 test is a bit like sitting a GCSE exam (sorry!). It’s set and marked by an external body like AQA, OCR or Edexcel, names you might recognise from school or college. The details will depend on the exam board, but you’ll be given around 90 minutes to two hours for each exam paper.

The difference is, all the questions will ask you to think about a real-life situation, and the tasks you’ll be asked to complete will have a realistic purpose.

Just like in real life, you’ll often be given some background information which you can use to help you answer the questions.

For example, this is the sort of question you might encounter in the functional skills level 2 maths paper*, complete with background information:

Background information

Use this formula to convert degrees Celsius (C) to degrees Fahrenheit (F): F = 1.8C + 32.

F is the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. C is the temperature in degrees Celsius.


The temperature in a dance class should be at least 65F. Sue reads the temperature one morning. It reads 19C.

Show that the temperature is above 65F.

*Taken from Edexcel functional skills mathematics level 2 exam paper, March 2016

Are you on this page because you’re thinking about applying for an apprenticeship? Take a look at our complete guide to apprenticeships to read about the different types, and the entry requirements for each.

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