Rarely has a single newspaper article provoked as much anger and hostility as the letter from David Russell, director of the Learning and Skills Council, in last week's FE Focus. The council hoped the letter would "put the record straight" on a report in the previous week's paper about a national inquiry into adult learning, commissioned by the national organisation for adult learning, Niace.
The report was criticised as "misleading" for asserting that adult basic skills were at risk and that further education had been "short-changed".
Record rises had lead to 5 per cent plus pound;170 million this year, Mr Russell said. Basic skills targets were a priority.
Unfortunately, that is not how the wider world saw things. Yes, there was record cash but there were also record-plus demands on colleges. In addition, the targets were undermining efforts to get people ready to improve their skills.
When The TES was published last Friday, telephone lines to FE Focus and its e-mail box were red-hot with rage. Nothing like it has happened since college incorporation, not even in the darkest days of the Further Education Funding Council.
One principal said: "We are declaring World War Three on the LSC." Another said: "As they say, lies damned lies and statistics." But the most common refrain was: "LSC head office is clearly out of touch with what is happening on the ground."
Repeatedly, principals and managers told us: LSC personnel do not understand what has to be done to get these unskilled, under-achieving adults ready to improve their skills. The squeeze on funds has had a dramatic effect. Some of the largest and most successful colleges were in the vanguard of those condemning the LSC letter.
But is the LSC to blame? It is a huge bureaucracy, charged with carving-up whatever cash ministers dispense, and it must work within government-set targets.
There is a strong message here to new ministers. Bill Rammell, new learning and skills minister, was on his feet in public, praising the indispensable work of colleges, within 12 hours of his appointment (page 3). Let us hope this is not the shortest honeymoon period in history for a politician.
The Treasury and education department have put skills at the top of the agenda - they want the country to unite in building a new edifice. But that is a poor vision if people have to climb over barbed-wire fences to get there.