LIFELONG learning minister Malcolm Wicks launched a massive, and surprisingly effective, charm offensive at the NATFHE conference in Blackpool at the weekend.
Scheduled for 25 minutes, Mr Wicks stayed for three hours and became the first serving government minister to take questions from the conference floor.
Then, to the obvious astonishment of the union's leaders, he announced he was staying for lunch and would be available to listen to delegates' college problems.
The NATFHE executive had feared a walkout, but Mr Wicks forestalled any such plans. He outlined his speech and told delegates that he was giving them the walkout organisers the chance to plan their protest. In the end the worst he faced was what sounded like hissing from a corner of the hall. As he said afterwards: "I think they were just drawing breath to laugh at my next joke."
He endeared himself by announcing the Government's intention to begin training principals, and in coming out firmly against the macho management culture of the last decade.
"We don't want to see any more cases like Halton or Bilston and we will be looking to the new learning and skills councils to target this. The days of macho management are over. We cannot tolerate victimisation of NATFHE or other trade union activists," he said.
The new principal training scheme is likely to mirror the headteachers' training organisation to be set up this year.
Delegates pressed Mr Wicks on pay, pointing out that many colleges did not meet even the low increases agreed by the Association of Colleges. "The Government has provided substantial extra resources for FE," said Mr Wicks. "The large investment we are making should give colleges leeway to pay better."
His trickiest moment was his advocacy of an FE equivalent to schools' advanced skills teacher status. Having negotiated that, he moved swiftly on to congratulate NAFHE on "helping FE to stay healthy by your vigilance on matters of governance".
"That," said general secretary Paul Mackney "was the most engaged address we have heard from a Government minister for 20 years."
Afterwards several delegates said they were delighted at the evidence that ministers now took the union seriously.
Despite the good impression left by Malcolm Wicks, delegates, that same afternoon, defied their leaders by passing a motion of no confidence in Education Secretary David Blunkett.
"We are facing the fifth year of redundancy in my college be-cause Labour is carrying on the policies of the Tory Government," said John Baxter, north-west region. "There is money in this country to fund education for all if Labour went back to real Labour policies and started taxing the rich."
But vice-president Jackie Johnson said: "Do you really want David Blunkett to resign - the first Education Secretary who has some idea of FE?
"Our meetings with Mr Blunkett are the wedge in the door. Do we want that door slammed in our face? The Tories wrecked FE in five years, and it will take more than five years to put it right."
The motion was carried by 106 votes to 78. "It's a reflection of the anger people feel that things aren't getting better," general secretary Paul Mackney said later.
This year's conference was the 40th in an unbroken series of NATFHE get-togethers attended by 74-year-old Elizabeth Farrelly. It brought her back to Blackpool, where at her first conference in 1961 she was the only woman.
The next year Mrs Farrelly was one of a handful of delegates from the North-east who persuaded what was then called the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutions to join the Trades Union Congress.
She also helped first establish women's rights policies in the union.
Now she is busy forming a retired members' section.
"You meet wonderful, dedicated people in NATFHE," she said. "They're dedicated to their students and to each other."