In the myriad seminars on the afternoon of the first day, it was, time and again, difficult to predict where contributors worked, since each framed what they had to say in terms of a common project. Learning and Skills Council staff engaged with the crisis faced by an underpaid sector; private-sector providers and publicly-funded colleges vied to address the quality agenda.
Not bad, when you think how quickly the ground has been travelled, from the establishment of the LSC, and its 47 local arms. Council staff exuded a new assurance - that after all the confusions of the early months, when it was often unclear who had the authority to make a decision, they now had a grip on the agenda.
There was a healthy mix of senior and middle managers from colleges, a sprinkling of private-sector providers, and a small cohort of adult education services. Estelle Morris came with some new money, a consultation paper, and a number of challenges. As ever, she was engagingly open, warm, and celebratory, and she was tough on the need to agree the grounds for dialogue. She encouraged frankness, direct speaking, and some recognition on the part of practitioners of the real additional resources the Government is committing.
Of course, some of the dialogue was not two way. Comprehensive spending reviews seem now to last forever. Everyone in the field agrees that the twin crises of low morale and inadequate pay in the further education sector must be cracked, if the proposals in Success for All (the purple consultation paper) are to bear fruit. Roll on the summer and a chance to renew that part of the debate after the review.
Meanwhile, in the spirit of openness and mutual respect, I had a different concern with Estelle's presentation, and the language of the policy paper.
She is without doubt a politician with conviction and we are lucky to have her. Despite recognising that 80 per cent of college learners are adults, the focus of the speech was, overwhelmingly, on FE meeting young people's needs. Adult learners' experiences were all but invisible. If you scratch the surface of Success for All, you find that adult education services are covered. It was right to recognise the gains in the coming together of the Further Education Funding Council, training and enterprise councils and school sixth-forms.
But where were local education authority and voluntary-sector adult education services? There was a mention of adults' right to learn for leisure - but that scarcely captures the rich mix of purposes that the Government's lifelong learning policy and the remit of the LSC recognise: where was learning for active citizenship, community regeneration, prolonging active citizenship, passion and curiosity, let alone spirituality?
Now, I know that the bulk of ministers' speeches are drafted and redrafted by civil servants, and I also know from the sensitivity and empathy the Secretary of State showed at the launch of Adult Learners' Week that she brings all her experience as a teacher to bear on her work, and understands intuitively the struggles many adults overcome to return successfully to learning. But it is worrying if the Government is not yet mirroring in the language of official papers, the gains in understanding across the patch that the conference demonstrated. It needs to match LSC chief executive John Harwood's recognition in his speech to the conference, that the sector has twin duties, each life-wide in scope, for adult as well as young people's learning.
The detailed language of a speech and a policy paper would not be such a concern if there were not already real imbalances in the policy portfolio - for example, in the target to get 50 per cent of 18 to 30s into higher education by 2010.
No one designed that policy with the intention of reducing the volume or range of adults' access to HE. But that surely will be the effect, if substantial new resources are not found, since that target is one for which the Department for Education and Skills will be accountable to the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit.
Targets have their uses, but not at the expense of the policies they are meant to encapsulate. And the great trick for all of us in making sense of the new sector, is to use a language and illustrations that make clear that success for all means all.
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education