It is a cliché in public policy circles to state that the reason further education doesn’t get the media or political support it deserves is because no one in Whitehall or Fleet Street has any experience of an FE college: they don’t go to them and they don’t send their kids to them.
And what you don’t understand, you can’t truly appreciate it. And if you don’t understand or appreciate it, it is all too easy to let it wither, underfunded and unloved.
This has been the story of further education, adult education and skills education for most of the last century.
Boris Johnson’s government would have you believe that this spiral of neglect has been ended. Announced in the Autumn, and then re-announced in last week’s Queen Speech, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee is central to his Building Back Better agenda. It will, we are told, offer fully funded courses for adults without any A-Levels or equivalent qualifications.
This policy switch is driven by a bundle of things. In no particular order, these include its new non-graduate electorate; a number of liberal remainer universities; the skills deficit that comes courtesy of Brexit; the inevitable hike in unemployment that will follow the end of furlough later this year.
It is not a policy without its critics, including Labour, which circles around the fact that the provision is too patchy, that too many sectors are likely to miss out and that the cut off (the only people with no A-levels need apply) is too arbitrary.
One area, however, that hasn’t really been much tackled by either the government or its opponents is the scale of the challenge of persuading millions of people to take up this new offer.
I have spent much of the last year talking to people in the kind of circumstances that Johnson’s guarantee is designed to help – and the fact is that for busy hard-working people with families, not much money and almost no spare time, retraining is much, much more easily said than done.
People in precarious and temporary work, who are raising families – for want of a better phrase, we might call them the “just about managing” – are objectively keen on the idea of retraining.
But travelling to attend courses, taking a break from their current jobs, reimaging themselves in a new career – in coding or something digital, for example – can just seem like too much of a stretch. When you are both time-poor and actually poor, making a career change seems daunting, risky and out of reach.
The proposals do try to tackle some of these issues with the decision to give all individuals access throughout their lives to the equivalent of four years of student loans if they are taking up approved training programmes. These will be available flexibly and full- or part-time.
But the cost of these courses is only part of the story for many of those who the prime minister wants to help.
Even when the precarious nature of their work, the impending end of furlough, the fact that their current jobs – for example in unskilled manufacture – are likely to be automated out of existence are pointed out, actually doing something about it can seem insurmountable. It’s hard to find time to worry about the long- or even medium-term, when the short-term is a daily struggle.
Add to this the fact that for many of those who have been failed by the education system in the past, the idea of returning to any kind of formal learning holds no attraction at all and you get a very complex challenge for policy designers in London.
There is another reason that skills policy has long been a backwater in Westminster: this stuff is really, really hard to get right.
Johnson and his government should be applauded for really giving it a go, but it is also to be hoped that they don’t just assume that they’ve now cracked it and move on to the next shiny thing.
If ministers are going to make this a success, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee will require a relentless focus and a commitment to major funding in the long-term – and a willingness to iterate and evolve the policy as it inevitably comes up against challenges. It is a hard road ahead.
Ed Dorrell is director of Public First
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies