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Behind the scenes at the AoC: Sarah Simons goes undercover

TES columnist Sarah Simons goes out and about at the Association of Colleges' annual conference

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TES columnist Sarah Simons goes out and about at the Association of Colleges' annual conference

It's that time again. When the FE hoi polloi herd like summat off David Attenborough towards the ICC in Birmingham, for the Association of Colleges' (AoC) annual conference.

If you've ever wondered what your principal’s office looks like and haven't been granted an audience, now is the time to wander past their door and casually jam your face against the glass for a glimpse of life in the fast lane. Rest assured, they'll not be there. They'll be here, and perhaps "on a detox" for a few days after (I couldn't possibly comment). What goes at AoC stays at AoC.

I love this conference and not only because of the abundance of free stuff and its proximity to Christmas. I love it because, in a college context, I shouldn't be here; I've never so much as popped a hoof on the lowest rung of the management ladder. But every November I manage to infiltrate the realm of The Great and Powerful, peep behind the curtain and see that The Principal of Oz is really just a human with as many problems as you and me, maybe even more.

My adventure began with a session in the main hall with the new AoC president, Ian Ashman, principal of Hackney Community College. He gave an impassioned and meaningful speech on the sector’s role in supporting students’ mental health, warning that we risk a crisis if we don't address the issue. This will be a priority for the AoC in the coming year and beyond.

'From super-brainy to brainless'

Next up was controversial neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield. Her delivery style was disarmingly entertaining. She showed an image of a human brain held in two surgical gloved hands, then went on to ponder what would happen if the hands were unsheathed and a slither of brain got stuck under a finger nail. Would it be the part that loves or a memory or the part that could've compelled the brain's owner to chew their fingernails? She simultaneously blew my mind and made me want to soak my own hands in Cillit Bang.

Just as swiftly as she beguiled me with her brain chat, she lost me with her poorly researched claptrap about the evils of seemingly anything on a screen. Her judgements were evidenced using anecdotes from The Daily Mail, unattributed quotes and research on digital engagement from 2010 (borderline Victorian era in terms of digital progression).

My beef with her derision was amplified by the fact that she clearly has little clue what the digital world actually is. She repeatedly referred to "Pokeman Go" while chucking it, and all video games and all social media, under a bus.

My hackles were up, but the appearance of comedian, author and mental health campaigner Ruby Wax smoothed 'em back down. She discussed her own personal experience of mental ill health and what she learned about it during her Masters from Oxford University, and urged teachers to learn how to spot the signs of depression in students.

What leapt out for me was her honestly surrounding the need to be with "her people", part of a community where others had similar mental health issues and could communicate without shame or fear. She told us her shows had gone down well with audiences in psychiatric hospitals: "The bipolars, they laughed, they cried..."

When I talked to David Hughes, CEO of the AoC, later in the day, he was equally committed to prioritising mental health within the sector, but he was clear that the need for support is not just an issue for students but for staff as well.

He said: "We have to work really hard to support staff better and to recognise those sorts of challenges. The AoC’s job in that is to pull them up to national level and expose them to ministers more.”

Following the morning’s a discussion on mental health, it was time to hit the exhibition stands for a free-stuff-trolley-dash, and then on to an afternoon of English, maths and managing change.

To be continued.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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