Alan Johnson's speech to the recent Quality Improvement Agency conference shocked me. I was delighted when he came back to Education and Skills as Secretary of State. As minister for further and higher education he had been straightforward, open-minded, tough, and good with people.
The day after he got the new job he was heading the Skills Alliance of ministers, quangos and leaders of national associations. He demonstrated a grip on the economic and social challenges facing the country by making lifelong learning a reality for many. At the heart of his contributions was a desire to discover what works best.
No one argues with the substance of the case he made to the conference. He insisted: "There must be a fairer apportionment between those who gain from education and those who pay for it - state, employer or individual." Few would disagree. Indeed, we have waited for decades for employers to take their share. And government's share in funding adult learning surely cannot continue to vary wildly from year to year, depending on the level of demand from younger learners.
There is, however, less agreement about what the balance of funding should be -which is why the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education launched a big conversation in Adult Learners' Week, asking how much adult learning should be on offer, and who should pay.
Governments are elected to make their priorities clear, and Mr Johnson's were straightforward: "We must rebalance taxpayer's money towards the subjects where there is greatest need." My problem lay with his illustrations. "More plumbing, less Pilates" makes for a good headline - it is alliterative, and rolls off the tongue. "Subsidised precision engineering, not over-subsidised flower arranging" - government apparently wants hard vocationalism, not soft leisure courses. Then, remembering that there is more to the British economy than manufacturing, he backpedals:
"except of course where flower arranging is necessary for a vocational purpose".
Just in case we have missed the point, he concludes: "Tai Chi may be hugely valuable to people studying it, but it's of little value to the economy."
And here is the rub. Anyone looking at the statistics on days lost to the British economy through bad backs will conclude that more Pilates might lead to more productivity. And if Tai Chi has little to offer the economy, why is the Government campaigning so hard to limit obesity?
But the real point is that you don't need to denigrate learning for personal and community development to make the case for a skilled economy.
Employers endlessly tell government that "soft skills" are what the system fails to develop. The skills of team working, communicating effectively, problem solving, working flexibly and applying creativity are at the heart of good working practice in the modern economy. Such skills can be developed in liberal-education classes at least as well as in vocational ones. And learning is not a neat business; learning leaks. Skills and confidence acquired in one place apply elsewhere. Managers know this, which is why so much money is spent on executive awaydays building castles in the air. And, for young people and adults alike, you cannot tell the purpose of the student from the title of the course.
There is, alas, a deep-seated prejudice in British education. Just like the academic-vocational snobbery that has bedevilled initial education here, there is a long-standing administrative and political scepticism about the value of adult learning that learners choose for themselves. It has a common theme. In 1980, in Sussex, the mantra was that people didn't want tap dancing on the rates. In 1991 it was flower arranging again, until we found a merchant banker who had retrained to become a florist at Lambeth evening classes. Under-water basket weaving and Australian cake decorating have had their moment of opprobrium. When the Foster review was launched, willow weaving took centre stage - though 80 per cent of the tiny number of willow-weaving courses on offer are vocational.
These illustrations fail to do justice to provisions that prolong active life for pensioners; offer a space for rebuilding relationships to people recovering from mental health problems; offer a route to learning languages; a chance to overcome obesity for people who can't afford the gym; opportunities for rehabilitation for offenders; and stimulus for people stuck in dull jobs.
In substance Mr Johnson's speech was about re-balancing. In tone, it endorsed the loss of one in three adult places in further education over three years. It needs an act of faith now to believe the Government still wants learning that is life-wide as well as life-long.
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education