Were we apathetic because we had heard it all before? Was it because the new money came tangled up in a cat's cradle of strings attached? Or was it that we were all distracted by the hot news: Jeffrey Archer's withdrawal from the race to be London's mayor? Many of the more rural delegates thought that the blanket coverage given to these events in the capital was an instance of the London weighting, about which they had read a lot but understood so little. Others remarked how very fortunate we were in the FE sector that we had had no experience of a prominent person with a flamboyant lifestyle and an unreliable memory being repeatedly confirmed in office, by people who expressed amazement and shock when it all went wrong.
Apart from the damp funding squib, the minister gave us a number of things on which to reflect, ranging across the fields of further, community, and what he kept calling "addled" education. He was very concerned about the 170,000 young people not in education, training or work of any kind, and thought we should all be doing something about them. Was I the only delegate who wondered what the national figure for daily truancy in Years 10 and 11 might be? Perhaps we are doing no worse than schools. If you have been bunking off for years from a compulsory system, it may take a little time for you to see that going to college could be a good thing.
At the same time, paradoxically, we were being told that colleges had recruited more 16- to 19-year-olds than had been planned. Seven million pounds would be found to fund some of them. If that was not confusing enough, and weary incomprehension was in ample supply throughout the conference, Malcolm Wicks let us into a personal secret. He had discovered that FE changes lives! He had, he said, recently met a former miner who had decided to go along to his local college, had been warmly received and well counselled, had enrolled on a course and succeeded, and had now begun a whole new phase of his life, full of confidence and high self-esteem. For ex-miner read ex-textile worker, ex-engineer, ex-housewife or ex-anything and you have the daily experience of all those who work in FE. It's good to have a minister confirm that what we have been doing for years is legitimate after all.
A lot of the delegates are key players in local lifelong-learning partnerships and so were interested to know what the Government thinks they will do. We remembered that last year, with a great flourish, David Blunkett had said that such partnerships should be formed as a matter of urgency, and that they would have a decisive role in bringing about a coherent, rational and collaborative pattern of post-16 education and training. That was then. Since then we have had the White Paper, and the rules have changed. We now know how. Lifelong learning partnerships will have three main jobs. They will gather intelligence about labour market needs, about the flows of school-leavers and their intentions, and communicate this to the local learning and skills council. They will help providers of post-16 education and training to work in partnership. They will constitute a learners' forum. All mouth and no teeth, in fact.
And learning and skills councils? Not the Further Education Funding Council reborn, not training and enterprise councils in another guise, we were told. The minister spoke of "new animals". Will all the TEC dragons be slain, to be replaced by even more terrifying creatures? He wasn't saying.
Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College