I’ve been going to the annual Association of Colleges Conference (AoC) for almost twenty-five years now - and they tend to be a curate’s egg experience.
One major highlight for me this time was the Helena Kennedy Foundation charity fundraising dinner organised by FE week, Tribal and ncfe - and now in its fourth year. We were joined on Tuesday evening by that force of nature herself, our President, Baroness Kennedy QC. What a joy it was to be reminded of Learning Works, her seminal report, published in 1997 just after the Blair government had been elected, and that led me, together with some fellow Principals, to found the educational charity that bears her name. Helena's reminder to us of the importance of lifelong learning was timely. If Labour is elected in May 2015, and Tristram Hunt (well known admirer of Blair's achievments in government) becomes Secretary of State for Education, we might well see a revival of learning for all.
This was also a conference characterised by the emergence of a fashion for politicans to reference their personal connections to FE as a means of displaying their own credentials. And speaking of revivals, this year AoC revealed an untypical biblical flavour to the proceedings.
This all started with the Shadow Minister for Skills and Universities, Liam Byrne, who reminded us that he is ‘the grandson of a college principal’. He understood the funding ‘pain’ colleges have gone through in the last four years and recognised that the FE sector has worked ‘miracles’. Conference anchorwoman Emily Maitlis continued the theological theme, referring to high profile newspaper FE Week as the sector’s ‘bible’, and heralding the ‘second (or was it fourth?) coming’ to AoC of the Business Secretary, Rt Hon Vince Cable, who proudly proclaimed FE had ‘a friend in him’ (that’s Vince not in Jesus) but not many other high level advocates in the media, in business, amongst employers and with parents.
Three good things in particular struck me about AoC this year.
Firstly the heavy weight politicians who addressed the main conference -Vince Cable, Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna Liam Byrne, - ‘get’ FE. So the sector stands a chance after May 2015, if Labour goes into a coalition or minority government with the current Lib Dem Minister!
These serious political figures acknowledge to a man (yes they are all still men) the messiness and fragmentation of FE – borne of endless responsiveness to successive, short term political and funding interventions; they all understand its ingrained defensiveness – exacerbated by the continual disappointment that no government over the last thirty years has ever delivered on its promise to take Cinderella to the ball; and they genuinely appreciate FE’s students and its strengths, its work and its weaknesses, its personalities and its potential.
Above all, they do believe that delivery of a world class, vocational and technical education (VET) system, through a high quality, ‘lifelong learning’, and entrepreneurial college sector is key to the nation’s sustainable economic development.
Their different contributions were all thoughtful, thought through, and thought provoking.
In contrast, reactions from delegates to the contribution by new BIS Minister, Nick Boles, his first (and probably his last) appearance at AoC ranged from ‘party political broadcast’ and ‘light weight’ to ‘this guy didn’t pick up the mood of conference and clearly doesn’t think he’ll be around in his current job post May 2015’.
The second reason to be cheerful is that if Labour wins the election (and there were some in the AoC audience who anticipate a minority Labour victory in May next year - or are at least hedging their bets) then the country - and the college sector – could at last have a government with a coherent vision of a more joined up education and skills system underpinned by a set of reforming economic and transforming social policies to deliver this.
This was the message, propounded with clarity and passion by the two Shadow Secretaries of State for Education and Business who jointly brought the AoC conference to a positive close with well received promises of action on information, advice, and careers guidance, greater collaboration between schools, colleges, and universities and a joint BIS DfE white paper on FE, apprenticeships and vocational qualifications to be published in the first 100 days of a Labour government.
‘Without vision the people perish’, the biblical saying goes. Many of us who have devoted our lives to FE are nurtured by the aspiration, ambition and hope in Labour’s pronouncements. Make no mistake about it however such a vision will only be delivered if Labour works hard now, in close partnership with the sector, to shape effective implementation over the life on the next government.
And on this front, a healthy dose of scepticism inevitably prevails across FE.
Real action must follow crowd-pleasing conference speeches. If Labour wins, we should have an FE White Paper by July 2015 - and seeing this may really begin to help us believe what the Labour politicians consistently at articulated at this conference - ‘FE’s time has come’.
And the third good bit – pure, visceral inspiration from comedian, actor (and Labour supporter) Alan Davies who stole the show and in whom FE has at least another friend.