Did Labour deliver its promises?
But FE Focus readers at least will, I hope, appreciate an appraisal of Labour's record.
We have had eight years of a Government committed to "education, education, education". Labour's 1997 manifesto declared: "All young people will be offered part-time or full-time education after the age of 16. Any under-18- year-old in a job will have the right to study on an approved course for qualifications at college... We will promote adult learning at work and in the critical sector of further education."
While limited by a commitment to Conservative spending plans for its first two years, Labour in its first term introduced "time off to study', a major focus on standards in schools and colleges, improved modern apprenticeships, and a range of pilot initiatives (including Education Maintenance Allowances, since rolled out nationally).
The Labour 2001 manifesto promised to address the 7 million adults without basic skills, helping 750,000 adults acquire them. It also pledged vocational options from 14, with "expanded apprenticeship opportunities".
Since then, it has set up the Learning and Skills Council, with its capacity to plan as well as fund learning, and focused on standards and FE reform under the Success for All banner.
There has been a major increase in funding: the LSC budget rose from pound;5.5 billion in its first year, 2001-02, to pound;9.3 bn in 2005-06 (with a planned increase to pound;10.1 bn in 2007-08); a major adult Skills for Life programme; and various 14-19 and skills white papers and pilot initiatives.
The net result has been mixed. In 1996, 77 per cent of 16 to 18-year-olds were in education or training (down from a peak of 77.7 in 1994). By the end of 2003, that proportion had dropped to 75 per cent.
But the number of learners - adults and young people - in LSC-funded FE has increased: from 3.4 million in 199697 to 4.1 million in 200304. Within this, the proportion of students taking level 1 (equivalent to GCSE grades D-G) or basic skills courses has risen from 30 to 45 per cent, and the proportion taking the longer level 3 (A-level equivalent) courses has fallen from 35 to 24 per cent. The proportion taking level 2 (GCSE grades A-C equivalent) courses has remained constant, but this has been sufficient to enable the proportion of the workforce qualified to level 2 to rise from 65 per cent in 1997 to 72 per cent in 2004.
The Government has met its 750,000 basic skills pledge, with 839,000 adults recorded as having gained basic skills qualifications since 2001.
Enrolments on apprenticeships have increased from fewer than 100,000 to nearly 250,000 since 199798. But this has been offset by an equal fall in the numbers taking just the core NVQs.
The picture is clearer - and better - as regards quality. The proportion of 16 to 18-year-old candidates achieving two or more A-level passes has increased from 78 to 92 per cent since 199697. Average success rates in FE (taking account of both drop-out and exam failure) have increased from 54 per cent in 199596 to 67 per cent in 200203. A similar proportionate increase from a lower base has occurred in work-based learning, but still fewer than 30 per cent complete a full apprenticeship.
A sharpened inspection regime, performance tables, and funding incentives have concentrated minds. The funding regime has increasingly given precedence to those who have had least - whether as children or because they missed out first time round.
FE for over-18s, as higher education, once paid for almost entirely by taxpayers, is increasingly funded by individuals (or employers) who get the direct benefit.
This is clear in Labour's 2005 manifesto, whose major pledge in this area of policy is a "guarantee" - by 2010 - "of a sixth-form place, apprenticeship or further education at 16". This is just a reworking of the commitment in 1997 to an entitlement to learning for all young people.
If the missing 25 per cent do at last take up this guarantee, adults and employers will have to pay for it with higher fees. If they do not, then this pledge will be in all the parties' 2009 manifestos. You read it here first.
David Forrester was director for further education and youth training at the then Department for Education and Employment from 1995 to 2001. He is now a college governor