Anyone who believed the Government had the best intentions towards colleges will have been rudely awoken by comments from Education Secretary Ruth Kelly. Facing the Commons education select committee last week, she was asked by Jeff Ennis, Labour MP for Barnsley East, whether the funding gap would be closed within four years.
She replied: "I cannot give any commitment on that. What I do say is that we will look at this in the round and we have to make sure we have an implementation plan for the 14-19 phase that works."
Mr Ennis responded: "It cannot be right that students in Barnsley are funded 10 per cent less than sixth-form students in Sheffield or wherever."
Quite right Mr Ennis, and one might have expected some affirmation from Ms Kelly. Instead, with a consummate display worthy of Sir Humphrey in Yes, Prime Minister, she said: "I hear what you say." In other words, she was having none of it.
Whether through a momentary lapse or ineptitude, Ms Kelly revealed in those words what everyone knew all along - this Government has no plans to give colleges a fair deal. Worse, Tony Benn says on page 3, proposed cuts in adult education are the litmus test of this Government's values.
The Association of Colleges has a mountain to climb as it launches its election campaign with a lobby of Parliament next week. Its chief executive John Brennan must think the task of Sisyphus was easier. Whenever he pushes the boulder to the summit, down it rolls again.
Successive ministers have pledged to close the funding gap. But it remains and in extreme cases has grown to 30 per cent. And Labour's answer? Open premium-funded school sixth forms in competition with colleges.
Much of this is about the coming general election. Ministers have lost interest in policies that, they think, do not bring votes. This administration, which has slipped on so many banana skins of late, desperately needs middle England votes to stay in power.
However, votes must be earned and the 600,000 employees in the learning and skills sector will ask: "What has Labour done for us?" Without a guarantee to bridge the gap, Labour does not deserve the FE vote.