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Clash of the conferences

The bad old days of FE competition have gone. These days we have more partners than the average harem boss, and we work smilingly with those we recently snarled at. Almost.

There are still areas in which the fires of rival camps blaze brightly on opposing hillsides. Surprisingly, one such area is the war of the annual conference contested between the Association of Colleges and the Learning and Skills Development Agency, the artist formerly known as Feda (the Further Education Development Agency).

The AoC is a reliable cove. It knows who it represents and is faithful to its college paymasters. It might, on account of its weight and size, seem ponderous sometimes and slow to manoeuvre, but it is a solid, dependable champion.

The LSDA, on the other hand, is a much flightier bird, selling itself to the highest bidder and hopping into bed with anyone with a cheque book. The two are locked in combat over who has the best and biggest annual FE conference. In this war, believe me, size matters. Big names, big venues, big audiences and big, big prices.

In the depths of winter, college principals trudge loyally through the cold to sample the chilly delights of a November Birmingham at the AoC bash. In flaming June, the LSDA puts on the rival show in London, a much more cosmopolitan affair. In line with the promiscuous nature of the LSDA, a minority of delegates are from colleges, and of those a minority are principals. Such altruism - we brave the winter's worst in Brum and send our deputies to the summer ball.

But the same big hitters get invited to address the multitudes at both.

This year, at the LSDA do the Education Secretary Charles Clarke and the still novice chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, Mark Haysom, talked to us - on different days, of course, since we need to take our medicine in small doses.

I sat on the front row for Mr Clarke, an unnecessary proximity as he is probably the only politician visible from the moon. I know we have to be polite to powerful people. And I shall be, eventually. But Charles, designer stubble looks good on Brad Pitt but less convincing on well-dined, under-exercised bruisers who have borrowed Andrew Marr's ears for the day.

I do, of course, apologise unreservedly to Andrew for that gratuitous reference to his aural appendages.

I tried to concentrate on Charles's product rather than the packaging and soon noticed that he is the master of reverse spin. Most politicians accentuate the positive and offer encouragement before slipping the knife under your belt in the final sentences. Charles, though, did the opposite.

He quickly dismissed the good news, extra cash to sort out the funding crisis (the 114th in my eight years as principal) as old stuff he wouldn't bore us with, and then spent 40 minutes telling us where we had gone wrong and what he intended to do about it.

Two of his solutions remained with me. He told us employers were our customers and we were letting them down. We had to customise our programmes and make employers contribute more to the cost - government was sick of stumping up cash for companies. Great. Try advising Marks amp; Spencer that the way to win its customers back is to raise prices.

Next, he proposed to streamline the department (lessons for us all there, Charles). Loads of initiatives and their leaders are to be thrown into the blender and liquidised into a huge partnership puree of standards, basic skills, inspection, leadership and qualifications. Just think of the cost for an annual conference for that lot.

All the lesser deities will be amalgamated into one supreme pantheon with the answer to every problem we ever had and some we haven't thought of yet.

Deep Thought, provider of the "ultimate answer" in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is finally with us, or will be as soon as we have sorted out the interface mechanism. Most of these amalgamated bodies, and the lifelong learning directorate itself, are run by former college principals who are women. Their first task will be to halt the decline in the number of females running colleges.

Mark Haysom is a different kettle of fish. Smooth and svelte, he told us how much he had come to admire us in his short reign. He has spent nine months on the FE mountain top and no one should expect him to have much insight yet into the complex operations in the swamps and marshes of college low-life. And he lived up to our expectations.

What you want to know, of course, is who is winning the conference battle.

Forget outcomes - evaluate delegates' experiences. London is expensive and dirty, and getting there involves Richard Branson in some way. My hotel was hot, noisy and grubby. In Birmingham I can stay at home and walk to the conference. For me, the AoC wins by a mile.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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