The paper explores the imbalance between the ethnography of further education and the policy‐orientated literature. Bates (1991) describes this as being the discrepancy between rich sociological analysis and the economics of training. The paper redraws this imbalance into one between the optimism of policy literature and the pessimism of ethnography. This pessimism has its roots in theories of reproduction and even the most recent work fails to escape this. Post‐fordists' notions support the optimism of policy literature; it is unlikely that the promise of a high trust/high skill society can be delivered within a capitalist society. It is argued that the insights of reproduction theory should be married to the concerns of policy literature with a view to developing critical and transformative practices.