Ngaio Crequer spent two days trailing the new lifelong learning minister at the sharp end as he met students and employers on a tour of Devon and Cornwall
Woolly hat, rainbow garb, the man was unstoppable when he burst upon the minister. Aides looked startled. "I have been so well looked after at this college," said Tibor Szucs. "I am 40 years old, I have been given a second chance. I was frightened, I had never touched computers in my life. I just want to thank you and them so much."
It was such a gloriously unscripted moment during George Mudie's two-day "skills crusade" in Devon and Cornwall that the student photographer did not have his camera set up in time.
"So what do you want the Government to do for you?" It is a question the new lifelong learning minister, asks of every group of students, staff and employers he meets.
What the students at one college did not want him to do was abolish sixth-form colleges. He was slightly taken aback but he reassured them this was not government policy. The only problem that minders had with Mr Mudie on his sprint from schools to colleges and workplaces was getting him from one meeting place to the next because he was interested in the answers and clearly enjoyed meeting people.
He had been well-briefed before the visit by the man from the government regional office but though he said the right things at the right times - support for European funding, development of higher education - he had his own agenda. He used the visit to inform himself and enjoy being the man of the people (jokes against himself permitted).
"One of the real problems is 16 and 17-year-olds getting time off for training. Are you lending your minds to that?" he asked a group of private trainers. It was a persistent theme.
He has an easy manner with people, moving his chair to one side and looking directly at his audience. Each new group was used for his own personal seminar, to give him a briefing. He would ask: "Why is the European Social Fund supporting you? Why are you not getting mainstream funding from the training and enterprise council? I don't like so many people having to fight for European money when we should be supporting you ourselves".
He was impressed by the work trainers provided for catering staff at a prestigious Cornish hotel. "I am going to ask you an impossible question. If you go to an average employer, how far are they along the national vocational qualification route in training their staff?" The answer was, it varies. Some employers provide excellent training and and others show no interest and simply recruit "anyone with two arms and legs ... it has taken us two years to get some people to do a one-day training course," said one trainer. Everyone tried to move the minister on but he clearly loved his subject -and then someone pointed out the windsurfers on Fistral beach.
At lunch he chatted to the region's top business people. He was always asking questions. Then when the more formal bit came, he spoke without notes but with passion, almost New Labour evangelical. He asked:"How can you defend schools where 30 per cent go to high school with unacceptable levels of numeracy and literacy? You then struggle with a product, spend time and effort on putting things right when it should have been put right in the first place in primary schools." He talked of the "disgracefully trained" workforce. Then it was their turn.
"I know Robert (his press officer) doesn't like questions and answers but you have to give people the opportunity to say what's on their mind," he announced.
He revealed that a "lass" had once said to him: "I have heard what you said but what do you mean by lifelong learning?" He said that the official definition was "if tomorrow you discover you are out of a job, you can look in the mirror, smile, and not be totally devastated." People were likely to change their jobs at least six times in their lifetime, he said. "People should be in an FE college, adding to their skills, preparing for that day."
He thought the most important thing was that all the partners in FE work together. Money was not the issue. "Although Gordon Brown (the Chancellor) disregarded me and has given us more money," he joked.
Then it was on to a company which manufactures catering equipment and has a successful modern apprenticeship scheme, and then private talks were held about the performance of the regional TEC. In the minister's absence an employee said that at 21 some people are too old to train. Whoops, whatever happened to the lifelong learning ethos?.
Later he visited Truro College with its excellent facilities and impressive results. It is the lead organisation in a partnership of 10 colleges involved in a widening participation project throughout Devon and Cornwall.
"It's humbling really seeing all of these kids," he said. "It wasn't this much fun in my day."