The Government can rightly claim success with its new skills-driven policies. More adults are signing up, staying the course and succeeding.
The recent delivery plan from the Learning and Skills Council demonstrated this admirably.
Success rates are up 2.6 points to 74 per cent of all further education students and apprenticeships. Indeed, almost 10 per cent more adults are taking level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications, the apprentice head-count is up 31 per cent and the number of adults doing basic literacy and numeracy as part of the Skills for Life programmes has risen an impressive 22.3 per cent to around 1.3 million.
However, it is what these numbers do not reveal that ministers and their advisers should be concerned about. Many of the adults who have boosted the figures are either already in work or have a foot on the first rung of the learning ladder. Others have had to pay for this. There are 600,000 fewer adults in FE than in 2004, 36,000 fewer in adult and community learning and 7,000 fewer in work-based learning. Despite a rise of 200,000 on Ufilearndirect courses, total recruitment has dropped by around 500,000.
A close look at some of the finest social inclusion and widening participation schemes (page 6 and 8) suggests that the blunt instrument of targets and performance indicators are leaving some of the most socio-economically deprived adults without funding for courses that would get them onto the ladder.
The first principles of Baroness Helena Kennedy's 1997 widening participation report appear to have been abandoned. Why, after almost 10 years of a Labour Government, does Britain still have to address this problem? When David Blunkett, then education secretary, launched the social inclusion agenda on the back of Kennedy, he insisted the question of whether the country could afford it was irrelevant. "We cannot afford not to invest," he said.
But the issue is not just about cash. None of the widening participation schemes looked at by FE Focus - all entries for Beacon Awards from the Association of Colleges - were bleating about cash. They want an end to targets and greater control over where to direct funds. The local government white paper calls for town hall targets to be slashed from 1,200 to 200. Colleges and other training providers need the same freedom. While the Leitch review of skills shortages will demand more cash for training, FE must be left to decide how a considerable part of the money is spent.