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what are key skills all about?

By Patrick McNeill

There are six key skills. Communication, Application of Number and Information Technology are the first three key skills and make up the Key Skills Qualification. The other three are often called the wider key skills. They are all available from Levels 1 to 4, with a single integrated unit – the Personal Skills Development unit – at Level 5.

  • Communication
  • Application of number
  • Information technology
  • Working with others
  • Improving own learning and performance
  • Problem solving

You can order copies of the units from QCA or from one of the awarding bodies, or view and download them from the websites, addresses given below.

What is the Key Skills Qualification?
This is a new qualification, to be awarded for the first time in 2001 to candidates who achieve a pass in all the first three key skills at Levels 1-4. The award will be profiled. For example, one candidate might achieve Level 2 in Communication, Level 3 in Application of Number and Level 4 in IT, where another candidate might achieve only Level 1 in all three.

Both would be awarded the Qualification, with their certificates showing their exact achievement. If a candidate does not achieve all three units, they will receive certificates for each unit they do achieve.

What is in the key skill units?
The core of the key skills units, which is identical from every awarding body, is made up of Part A and Part B.

  • Part A is headed "What you need to know" and sets out the knowledge and underpinning techniques that the student needs to know and be able to use in order to do what is required in Part B.
  • Part B is headed "What you must do" and is in two parts. The first column (the "evidence components") lists what a candidate must do, in numbered sections. The second column (the "assessment criteria") specifies the standard at which the candidate must do the things in the first column.

QCA has published Guidance on the Key Skills Units which goes into great detail about the specifications for the first three key skills at Level 1-3. It can be obtained from QCA or from the awarding bodies, and it is on the QCA website. Guidance on the wider key skills and on the higher levels will be available very soon.

How will candidates' work be assessed?
The first three key skills will be assessed through a combination of a portfolio of evidence and an external test. The candidate must pass both. There are no grades, merits or distinctions. The wider key skills will be assessed only through portfolio evidence. They will not contribute to the Key Skills Qualification but will be given unit certificates.

The portfolio is a file or folder for collecting and organising evidence for assessment. The evidence listed in Part B of the unit must be produced in full, with 100 per cent coverage. Students can gather portfolio evidence from any area of their life, whether it be study, work or leisure. The portfolio will be internally assessed and the assessment will be internally verified.

A sample of portfolios will be externally moderated through the Standards Moderation system operated by the awarding body. Exemplar portfolio materials will be available from the Key Skills Support Programme and from the awarding bodies. Check their websites for details.

External tests
These tests will be set by QCA and administered and marked by the awarding body. They must be taken under timed and supervised conditions. At levels 1 and 2, the test will consist of forty multiple-choice questions, based mainly on Part A. It will last for an hour with an optional extra 15 minutes for Application of Number.

At Level 3 and above, the test will last for 90 minutes. Questions will be more open-ended, with a heavy emphasis on candidates' ability to apply the skills in a range of situations. The test will be available up to five times a year. For details, contact your awarding body. Sample question papers and past papers are on the QCA website.

Do all candidates have to take the external tests?
No, there are some 'proxy qualifications' that provide exemptions from taking some external tests, and some which provide exemption from the entire IT key skill. They are listed on the QCA website.

Do key skills count for UCAS points?
From 2002, UCAS points will be awarded to candidates who achieve any or all of the first three key skills units. The tariff for each unit is as follows:

  • Level 2 - 10 points
  • Level 3 - 20 points
  • Level 4 - 30 points.

So, the points for achieving the first three key skills at level 3 (60) are the same as for an AS at Grade A or an A level at Grade D.

How does the Key Skills Qualification relate to other qualifications?
The Key Skills Qualification is a separate qualification in its own right, though, in schools and colleges, it will usually be taken alongside qualifications such as AS and A levels, GNVQs and NVQs. From 2000, all national qualifications will include "signposts" to opportunities to develop and produce evidence for the first three key skills, but these are neither mandatory nor comprehensive.

What about key skills in Key Stage 4?
From September 2000, the first three key skills are included in the Section 400 list, which means that schools will be funded for delivering key skills in KS4 programmes. Key skills are signposted in the new GCSE specifications which will be launched in September 2001.

Where can I get more information and advice about key skills?
All the following websites have useful pages about key skills:

Support Programme





City & Guilds






Patrick McNeill is a freelance educational consultant. He has been an examiner for four different exam boards, and writes and lectures on all aspects of post-16 education and training.

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