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The QM Cycle


What are Basic Skills? 

Basic skills are defined as:

‘The ability to read, write and speak English and use mathematics at a level necessary to function and progress at work and in society in general.’

Without good communication, literacy and mathematical skills, individuals are severely disadvantaged throughout their lives – as learners, in the workplace and as parents, consumers and citizens.

In England, ‘functional skills’ will increasingly become the terminology in general use, in line with 14–19 curriculum reform. The generic definition of functional skills is those core elements of English, mathematics and information and communication technology (ICT) that provide each pupil with the essential knowledge, skills and understanding that will enable them to operate confidently, effectively and independently in life and at work. In English, this means that each pupil is confident and capable when using the skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing and is able to communicate effectively, adapting to a range of audiences and contexts. In mathematics, this means that each pupil has sufficient understanding of a range of mathematical concepts and is able to know how and when to use them.1 For the purposes of this guidance, the terms ‘basic skills’ and ‘functional skills’ are generally interchangeable.

Underattainment and underachievement

The terms underattainment and underachievement are used in some of the Secondary Quality Mark elements.

Underattainment means where a pupil performs in literacy and/or mathematics at a lower level than the attainment expected for a pupil of their age.

Underachievement means where a pupil performs at a lower level than their potential. An underachiever may be a high-attaining pupil who does less well than their potential.

The national agenda

The Secondary Quality Mark complements and supports the principles underpinning national education strategies, inspection frameworks and the drive to improve standards in literacy and mathematics. 

Benefits of the Secondary Quality Mark

A school working towards the award will find that it adds value to its current teaching and learning in basic skills across the curriculum, as well as in English and mathematics. The Secondary Quality Mark promotes and supports improved outcomes for learners.

The Secondary Quality Mark is an inclusive award as it can be achieved by all types and sizes of secondary schools. It can be used as a supportive improvement framework for those needing to address issues of underattainment and/or underachievement in basic skills, or as an external validation and recognition of good practice and progress in basic skills.

The process of rigorous self-evaluation, followed by action-planning and regular review to identify impact, is a key strength of the award. Secondary Quality Mark work will complement and help to integrate other initiatives being undertaken to improve basic skills.

Download the secondary self-audit template.

Each school controls the timescale for making its submission. The length of time taken to achieve accreditation will vary according to a school’s starting point and its capacity to demonstrate progress.

All staff2 will be involved in helping to achieve a Secondary Quality Mark, but there are particular continuing professional development (CPD) benefits for middle and senior leaders and managers. They can develop and employ generic leadership and management skills such as auditing, action-planning, monitoring and evaluating, in a practical context and with a tangible outcome.

Governing bodies will find that work carried out to achieve and sustain a Secondary Quality Mark offers a practical context in which to monitor and evaluate the quality of provision and educational standards in their schools. This will demonstrate how governors are actively carrying out their ‘critical friend’ role and offers opportunities to work with staff.

Achieving a Secondary Quality Mark offers valuable public recognition and ‘a pat on the back’ for staff for their day-to-day work of teaching literacy and mathematics. It celebrates the work of the whole school community in making progress in improving the quality of its provision for basic skills. Parents and employers will appreciate that holding a Secondary Quality Mark demonstrates that the school has a strong focus on ensuring pupils leave equipped with the basic skills needed to function and progress in their future working lives.

A further benefit of working towards the award is that it encourages networking to share good practice in basic skills.

1 For fuller explanations, refer to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) web site:
2 ‘Staff’ includes all those adults working in a school who are involved in helping pupils to learn or to improve basic skills, not only those with Qualified Teacher Status.