It doesn’t take more than a basic grasp of current affairs to work out that the Tories think apprenticeships are good. In fact, during the election campaign it would also have been difficult to miss the fact that Labour also thinks they’re good. And so do the Liberal Democrats.
In fact, Ukip thinks work-based learning is good as well, and so do the Greens. Every political party which mounted a serious challenge in England on May 7 was, and still is, dead keen on apprenticeships.
What does take a lot more than a basic grasp of current affairs to work out is the danger that the expansion of apprenticeships poses to adult education in England.
I do not for one minute suggest that an apprenticeship is a bad concept.
A proper apprenticeship, with a decent salary (not the pitiful £2.73 an hour apprentice minimum wage), government-approved framework, correct ratio of work to training time and a certificate at the end can be a passport to trades and salaries jobless graduates can only dream of.
But that’s not the main reason politicians like them.
Politicians like them because most people don’t really understand what they are, and when the electorate doesn’t understand something, it means the government can pretty much get away with anything it wants.
The main benefit of apprenticeships for any politician is the effect starts have on employment statistics. Every framework start can be dressed up as one fewer person in the queue at their local JobCentre, whether that’s actually the case or not.
And to that end, it doesn’t really matter to the Tories if the three million apprenticeship starts they have promised by 2020 lead to actual completions. As long as the number of apprenticeship starts continues to rise and unemployment continues to fall, the government will claim to be winning its argument.
But the establishment’s obsession with apprenticeships, that wonderful buzzword for growth and ambition which can inspire both but often provide neither, and their passion for creating more and more starts, could come at a terrible price.
Apprenticeships are funded from the adult skills budget, an element of Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) spending administered by the Skills Funding Agency, and funding for them is prioritised over everything else paid-for out of that pot.
Which would be fine if the amount of money going into it was rising. But it isn’t.
The government’s 2013 to 2015 skills funding statement tells us that in the 2013/14 academic year, the baseline adult skills budget stood at £2,467,875,000. In 2014/15, it was expected to fall to £2,258,311,000. This year, it has been set at £2,008,528,000.
It’s not hard to work out that rising learner numbers versus falling funding levels is going to lead to a certain amount of pressure.
But that pressure won’t be on apprenticeships funding, which is being prioritised. That pressure will be on the rest of the further education (FE) sector, and I’d be surprised if anyone in power was taking that remotely seriously right now.
Adult skills funding has been cut by 35 per cent since 2009.
But unless you earn your money in or on behalf of that sector, or have some other connection, I doubt you’d know that.
These cuts have been targeted in this area because the FE sector is relatively easy for the government to ignore.
As a general rule, MPs don’t send their children to FE colleges. Nor do journalists. Or policy wonks. It is not a sector renowned for educating high society or training the Westminster elite.
Nor is it a sector whose screams of panic every time another huge axe falls on budgets are heard and amplified by the mainstream media.
If a 35 per cent cut had fallen on the schools sector, there would be hell to pay.
But every year, the FE sector is told to sit down and shut up as millions of pounds are stripped from its budgets.
Sector organisations are relentless in their attempts to translate the blind panic behind the scenes in colleges up and down England.
The Association of Colleges has warned that continued cuts could “decimate” adult education by 2020, while the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has said the onslaught of reductions in funding could cause “crippling skills gaps and shortages”.
The damage of persistent cuts can already be seen up and down the country, but most people aren’t looking hard enough to see it.
The FE commissioner, who visits struggling colleges when Ofsted has rated them as “inadequate” or when the government isn’t happy with the state of their finances, has been sent in to at least 18 colleges and learning providers, and BIS has admitted there is no end to his role in sight.
Even the man in charge of funding adult learning, Skills Funding Agency chief executive Peter Lauener, admitted in December that his organisation had concerns for the “growing number of colleges” facing financial challenges.
The FE sector cannot continue to shoulder its disproportionate share of the burden of austerity. The economic case for protecting its funding could not be clearer, but is being ignored for the sake of short-term savings.
The new business secretary Sajid Javid should not be fooled into thinking ambitious pledges of millions of apprenticeships will solve the woes of a sector on the brink of annihilation. Apprenticeships will never replace our adult education system once it is gone.
If Javid fails to listen to the desperate pleas of the institutions responsible for training and re-training some of the most vulnerable in society, giving those failed by a struggling schools system a second chance when they have nowhere else to turn, giving those who decide later in life that they want another go, then adult education will be dead within a decade.
Freddie Whittaker is a journalist at FEWeek and Schools Week – he tweets as @FCDWhittaker.