What does it cost to open a 14-19 University Technical College? If you are Lord Baker, it’s upwards of £20m. If you are from Cleveland and Redcar College you get the same for £30,000 – the research grant they won from the Learning and Skills Improvement Service that multiplied into support from local business and industry.

Let’s make another funding comparison. Accolades were rightly awarded to John Hayes, FE and skills minister, for wresting £210m from the Treasury for adult safeguarded learning. But local authority advisers I spoke to when researching an essay for the Parliamentary Skills Group book, Open to Ideas, pointed out that it was nothing compared with the £600m for free schools, over which they have no say despite the impact on local education provision.

And what do free schools bring? We have Eton launching a free sixth-form in Newham where there is already an FE college, a sixth-form college and school sixth forms, all judged by Ofsted as “good” to “outstanding”. The new providers suggest there is a shortage of good “academic” sixth-form places. They would not say this had they consulted those on the ground.

With numbers of NEETs now topping a million, there is much heart-searching over how to tackle this intransigent problem”

Daily Express journalist Toby Young and the head teacher Katherine Birbalsingh both plan new academically elitist schools where there will be no skills teaching under the age of 16. Despite the fact that overwhelming evidence points to such a curriculum as incomplete, they are setting up these establishments as free schools with the blessing of Education Secretary Michael Gove.

The language Young and Birbalsingh use in the media denigrates skills learning as second-rate, and casts people who pursue it as “rude mechanicals”. College managers have already spoken to me of the negative impact such moves are having on young people and especially those hoping to be apprentices.

Everyone at a Parliamentary Skills Group seminar, What to Cut and What to Keep, was of a like mind – stop seeking so-called parity of esteem between academic and vocational learning and, instead, imbue a lifelong love of skill and craft in all, whether for work or pleasure, from the earliest possible age.

The word “lifelong” is the key here. With numbers of NEETs now topping a million, there is much heart-searching over how to tackle this intransigent problem. As a result, “schemes” such as the Work Programme are tacked onto the system with mixed outcomes, which at best fall well short of desired targets, as all such schemes have shown for decades.

But a NIACE-sponsored two-year inquiry into the future of lifelong learning suggested a more radical solution. Considerable national and international evidence was brought to bear, which showed that a greater concentration of resources on adults created strong role models and had a disproportionally positive effect in encouraging the young to remain in education and training.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the inquiry report in September 2009 called for redistribution £1 billion from under-25s to the over-50s. Given demographic changes it could be managed, despite the recession, with no cuts in real terms to per capita spending on the young. Provision would also more directly reflect spending on lifelong learning in countries higher than the UK in the OECD success ratings, such as Norway.

Whether such a policy ever stood a chance of being tested is a moot point; Gove would never wear it. Despite the Departments for Education and Business, Innovation and Skills sharing a minister, there appears to be little synergy and a lot of waste.

It seems as if they don’t listen to each other. When I mentioned this at the seminar, there were firm nods and comments in concurrence from college and business representatives.

From its outset, the Coalition government promised a seamless and truly lifelong education service with necessary skills at its heart. With further cuts looming, have we achieved the fiscal sustainability across all departments we desire? If not, what do we cut and what do we keep?

 Ian Nash is a partner in Nash&Jones Partnership of journalists and media consultants

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