Train to Gain is the most important government training programme launched this decade. From small beginnings in 2002, as a footnote in one of Gordon Brown's budgets, the programme, which offers employers training grants for low-skilled workers, has become the model for organising and funding adult learning.
When the white paper promises that more than 50 per cent of adult learning funding will be demand-led, ministers and civil servants are thinking about Train to Gain. Their idea is that, as fees cover a growing share of the costs of courses, the Government will shift its money to new types of training. The message for those working with adults in colleges is clear.
It's Train to Gain or bust.
The closing date for Train to Gain bids passed this week. The Learning and Skills Council put pound;500 million of public money up for tender and will make its selections over the next two months. These decisions will confirm which colleges and training providers participate in the programme for the next two years and possibly the year after that.
There will be other routes into Train to Gain, but the May bidding round is the biggest and most important. There is much speculation about whose tenders will win, but also much uncertainty.
Although the Learning and Skills Council published 500 pages of documents across its nine regions, it hasn't really explained how and who it will select to do the training. Colleges and other training organisations in the pilot areas feel well-placed to secure work, but their optimism may be misguided. The LSC wants to contract with quality organisations. Expect disputes when the decisions are announced.
The uncertainty over the outcome is compounded by the short timescales for bids. The LSC wants bids within a month of its invitation, having taken 18 months to design the scheme. This could help larger organisations with more expertise at writing bids.
The time spent designing Train to Gain has created another feature of the programme: over-specification. Colleges and training providers will need to obey multiple instructions. The employers, ideally, should be "hard to reach". They should be working in a sector considered important locally.
The employees must be willing to acquire a level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification but musn't already have one. In some cases, they must take a qualification specified by the relevant sector skills council.
Added up, the programme feels not so much demand-led as command-led.
Colleges and training providers will be expected to deliver a standardised service under a government franchise under the watchful eye of numerous brokers and officials. The Government will take advice and then decide on behalf of employers what is to be taught and how much it will cost.
Keeping within these costs will be one challenge. In a throwback to the 1990s, it will vital be to get employees through their qualification because 50 per cent of the funding depends on success.
Fast turnaround of qualifications will guarantee steady income from government. If the employee is assessed but not really trained, then the rate paid will be less, but there are clearly areas where trainers can make good margins. These will be counterbalanced by the costs of dealing with small numbers. Sending a member of staff to train just a couple of people at a workplace is expensive.
Sub-contracting and distance learning could become popular ways to meet targets and preserve margins - there are few rules to prevent their use.
One of the aims of Train to Gain is to force colleges and training providers to focus on government priorities. The Government decision to fully fund the training with no contribution from employers makes the programme more expensive than it could have been. It will also make those who win the contracts more vulnerable to changes in government policy.
The impact on FE might surprise policy-makers. Uncertainty over future income could discourage colleges from capital investment and borrowing.
This could force the Government to pay more for projects and facilities it wants. Uncertainty over adult funding could also increase FE's focus on younger people on full-time courses and apprenticeships. Business-like organisations inevitably follow the most reliable sources of income.
Train to Gain is a programme to change employer attitudes to skills. It will inevitably also change life across further education.
Julian Gravatt is director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges