Ruth Kelly's recent faux pas over colleges when speaking to a civil servant betrays how little many politicians think about further education. In asking why parents send their children to college, the Education Secretary failed to understand what colleges are about (see FErret, page 3).
First, by-and-large, parents do not "send" their children. Students "pick" colleges, often for anti-school reasons. Second, FE is not, as her question implies, a second choice. A-level results testify to that every year.
Equally important, as the ICM poll for the Association of Colleges revealed last week, eight out of 10 people in Britain believe that colleges are as vital to this country's economy as are the universities.
So why doesn't this translate into political clout? Most of what is in the party manifestos this week is little more than lip service to colleges and training centres (see page 2). Only the Liberal Democrats have clearly-costed policies. However, the pound;330 million they identify to bring college budgets into line with those of schools falls well short of their true need.
Politicians know they can cut costs and squeeze colleges - and still get good service. Even when big cash went into colleges under a Labour government, it was nothing compared with that for schools and universities.
Colleges have exceeded all recruitment and success targets for most of the 12 years since they left local authority control. Their results have been as good as - and often better than - schools', despite getting 10-13 per cent less cash. They provide cheap off-the-peg and tailored courses for industry, and universities are happy to farm out degrees to them, knowing that FE will deliver without even charging top-up fees.
There's the rub. Why should politicians go spending at John Lewis when an economy store will do? Nothing wrong with the cut-price store, but it would be depressing if that were the only place you could shop. That is how college staff so often feel, as The TES Readers' Manifesto revealed last week. Constant awareness of being third or fourth in line with a begging bowl has done damage.
There is no point pretending that this time FE really will be a significant factor in the general election. But when the show is over on May 5, FE and training chiefs must put some tough options to politicians.
If fair funding is not forthcoming, the Learning and Skills Council and AoC should tell ministers to shop elsewhere.