When entering the workplace, you’ll need good functional skills (also known as literacy skills), including maths, English and ICT.  If you’ve already gained GCSEs in these subjects, then you are good to go, as the best way to show off your skills to employers is through your qualifications. However, if you are lacking those all-important GCSES, don’t fear(!), there are plenty of ways to get you up to scratch, either in your local community or online. Best of all, most of these courses are free!

You can choose to re-take your GCSEs, however, if you found them too abstract and not relatable to the outside world, functional skills qualifications may be a better bet for you. They offer you the same level of qualification, and are positively viewed by employers, however you’ll learn how to use your skills in a more appropriate context, both in work and in everyday life.

Female student in a lecture room looking over the top of her blue textbook

Functional skills are important

Most jobs specify that you need basic reading, writing and maths skills while you’ll also need them for further study, e.g. for National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs).

Employers are less interested in so-called academic maths (e.g. algebra, calculus, etc.), but instead want applied and practical skills such as approximation, mental arithmetic, capability with visual data, a solid grasp of units of measurement, the ability to check your own calculations and simple problem solving.

Employers also want the “basics” in English, such as enhanced listening and speaking skills, good writing, oral and spoken comprehension and good spelling, grammar and vocabulary. They also want employers who can use appropriate language in the office, e.g. in writing e-mails.

You are not alone

If all this is getting you down, remember that there are lots of people out there that also have problems with reading, writing and numbers, and the ways in which you are taught and what you are taught is different to school so it’s everything you learn is easier to understand. Furthermore, the teachers and tutors you’ll come across will be used to working with people in your position so will be able to explain things in a manner that suits you.

As well as helping you get back into work, improving your literacy can help you with your self-confidence, and help you deal with your finances better. You’ll also meet like-minded people and be able to share your experiences of studying along the way.

Flexible Learning

Within functional skills you can start where you feel comfortable and move up to higher levels once you’ve completed the basics, or start from a bit higher up if you already understand the essential elements. You’ll be assessed, either by collecting a portfolio of your work or undertaking a short online test, by your learning provider to make sure you start on the correct course level.

Furthermore, assessments and learning can also be flexible depending on your needs, how you prefer learning, your free time, and your responsibilities. You can be examined via paper-based assessments, online assessments or a mixture of the two.

For each skill you’ll complete tasks and activities to show how you can apply your new skills, and once you’ve finished all your courses and completed your tasks and activities, or tests, your work will be assessed to gain your qualification.

Where to start

Most people choose to learn at their local college or adult learning centre, as these offer a wide range of courses and have dedicated people on hand to help you when you finish, for example to help you create your CV and look for work when you finish. Libraries and community centres also offer functional skills courses, and to find your nearest service you can either search your local council website or online via the National Careers Service.

You can also choose to learn online with organisations such as Learn Direct. They offer face-to-face support whilst you can also continue your learning independently wherever you have internet access.

A MacBook with the word Learning on it, a table with the word Online on it and a smartphone with the word Mobile on it

Image credit: www.leanforward.com

What you’ll learn


  • Whole numbers - and how to work with them
  • Fractions, decimals and percentages 
  • Shape and space - working with plans and diagrams
  • Common measure - measuring everyday things e.g. working with money, keeping track of time, or measuring food for a recipe.
  • Handling data - reading bar charts, tables or maps, or get information from a timetable, and creating data displays of your own.


  • Reading - to others or following instructions
  • Writing
  • Grammar and punctuation
  • Spelling
  • Vocabulary
  • Speaking and listening

Best of all, it’s free (probably!)

If you've over 16 and you've left school, you normally don't have to pay to do:

  • English or maths to GCSE level (or equivalent)
  • some information and communication technology (ICT) courses
  • English for speakers of other languages (ESOL)

If you find that there is a fee at your local college or learning centre, you may be able to get Discretionary Learner Support (see our Funding page for more details).

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