The idea of colleges refusing to accept cheques from employers who are willing to pay to upgrade their workers' skills seems absurd. But that is exactly what is happening under Train to Gain, the latest initiative to get Britain's workforce to at least GCSE standard.
Since the Government says courses to improve skills are now free, this applies to everyone regardless of ability to pay. Therefore, we have the farce of colleges - desperately seeking cash - actually sending the money back. This might not matter but for the fact that such fee remission penalises colleges that have already hit the arbitrary level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) target. And, as the letters sent to individual colleges detailing spending for 2006-07 this week show, most - if not all - of these will find themselves out of pocket as the Learning and Skills Council tries to rebalance limited cash. There is considerable logic in targeting cash at areas of skills shortage. This Government has done more than any other over the past 15 years to boost college fortunes and encourage partnerships to improve skills in the workplace. But the targeting of cash is still proving to be an inflexible and blunt instrument.
The litany of criticisms in an unpublished Adult Learning Inspectorate report (page 1) shows that, far from increasing the number of adults signing up for level 2 courses, the skills strategy is just shifting people around the system. More worrying, the choice of courses winning fee remission is arbitrary and the benefit is not reaching those with the most basic skills needs.
The Department for Education and Skills insists the inspection report was not suppressed but done to "identify areas for development". A spokesman said the LSC "has incorporated part of this report into its communication plan". It was up to the ALI whether or not to publish. However, reading between the lines, it is clear ministers would be happier were the most sensitive points in the report never published.
For example, the report says none of the colleges inspected had increased recruitment rates as a result of the level 2 entitlement. On this, the Adult Learning Grant was far more effective. This will not surprise college managers but it will frustrate them.
Far from leaving it to the ALI to publish, ministers should be insisting on wider dissemination of the report and sensible discussion of such findings.
It is a very pressing question of trust and open government.