STOP THREE people in the street and ask them to name the minister for FE. More than likely their response will be: 'What's FE?'
Stop three college lecturers in the street (or "on the streets" as is increasingly the norm) and their response will be pretty much the same. All right, you'd hope they'd know what FE is, but the name of the minister? Not a chance.
You can't help but feel that it's a bit of a problem post - the Northern Ireland of the education ministry, maybe. Catch the wrong person's eye at the wrong moment and boom, the job's yours, complete with flak jacket and bullet-proof car just in case you meet those down and out ex-lecturers.
But there are some qualifications required to become FE's top dog. Ideally you should be around 55. Not just now, but for the whole of your life. It's also more important that you are the right shape (pear), otherwise the ministerial cardigan just won't fit. And then it's an absolute must that you be called something instantly forgettable like Muddy, or Dubby or Blobbie.
Once in the job you must resign yourself to a life of unremitting tedium. Certainly, initiatives will come up from time to time, but any decisions that matter will invariably be taken over your head.
The main part of your day involves attendance at the world's dullest photo-opportunities: presiding over a posse of principals; smiling at cabbages at an agricultural college; sharing a platform with the general secretary of the boilermakers' union.
You are allowed to make speeches, but only if they say nothing of any interest. You lament missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential, but are clear that these problems will not be solved by throwing money at them. Possibly you might declare yourself to be against sin, although sin can be a tricky one in these days of widening participation, and probably it'll have to be cleared with No 10.
Any questions of substance are to be ducked, fudged or "answered in three ways". One to particularly avoid is the hot potato of school sixth forms. Instinctively you are against them, but the Daily Mail isn't, and anyway you never know when you might need one for your own child. Thus whenever the topic is raised you declare it to be a "complex matter" but much less important than the "real issues" of unfulfilled potential and missed opportunities.
One important qualification for the job is that no one must ever have heard of you before. Certainly no one ever will again, once you have shuffled off into that political twilight known as "the former minister for FE". Your actual title is Minister for Lifelong Learning, which means that you can expect to be in the job for six months at most.
The one exception to this vision of unremitting grey, it could be argued, is Baroness Blackstone, currently one step up the ministerial ladder from the Lifelong Learning post. For a start she is female and rarely to be seen sporting a cardy.
But then isn't the Red Baroness simply the exception that proves the rule? Like the little girl in red in Spielberg's Schindler's List, doesn't the splash of colour she brings to her office only serve to emphasise the monochrome drabness of all around her?
Who said this? "The standard of training is not good because the lecturers are old." No, not some scarce-bearded youth who thinks he's going to live forever, but the head chef at the very grand-sounding Lords of the Manor Restaurant in Stow-in-the-Wold.
It seems that the chef, John Campbell, is not very happy with that FE product known as an NVQ in catering. And where does he point the fickle finger of fault? Straight at the ageing hearts of thee and me.
Now I suspect there are at least two ways of responding to this. (1) We send Mr Campbell a letter reminding him that, old though we are, we know where he lives. (2) We write thanking Mr Campbell for being so nice to us.
After all, he's not saying, like so many others have in the past five years, that we are lazy or greedy or incompetent. Only that we are old. And we can hardly be blamed for that, for all that those holding the FE pursestrings would rather we dropped dead at 40 so they could bring in someone cheaper.
There is also the comforting thought that one day Mr Campbell too will be old. And just in case he and his fellow chefs have difficulty in recognising decrepitude when it finally creeps upon them, I offer the following "Am I an old git cook questionnaire" for them to cut out and keep:
1 Have you started to dribble into your stockpot?
2 Halfway through a recipe, do you have problems remembering what on earth you are cooking?
3 Do you rush to open the new Saga brochure?
4 Do you and your teeth take separate Saga holidays?
5 On your Saga holiday (with or without teeth), do you always head straight for the orthopaedic sun-lounger?
6 Do you find yourself being quoted in the papers droning on about "the good old days" before NVQs in catering?
Answer yes to any of these questions (or even hesitate before answering) and, Mr Campbell, face the facts: you're too old to cook!
Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London FE college