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The inconvenient truth

For three days in late autumn, principals from FE colleges across the land swarm to a conference centre in Birmingham where they share best practice, learn about sector developments and party like it's New Year's Eve at Sugar Hut.

It was my first time at the Association of Colleges' annual conference and I missed no opportunity to learn, debate and see how senior management operate when released into the wild. I anticipated being ejected at any moment for not being important enough, but styled it out by using phrases such as "inward investment".

FE minister Matthew Hancock had the nerve to pitch up without his ever-present equine sidekick, but drew me out of my state of horse-free gloom with his promise of doubling funds for maths and English. Next came business secretary Vince Cable, who left me bewildered when he compared the FE sector to The Great British Bake Off.

But I was most perplexed by the audience reaction to a comment made by shadow education minister Karen Buck: "One of the things that worries me, and the conference may shout me down, is that there is sometimes a risk that very young people going into college may not get the full pastoral care and support they would want."

Did the audience consider that, just possibly, she had a point and there was sometimes a risk that not every area of every campus of every college provided appropriate levels of support? No. They showered her with boos as if it were a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk.

I imagine that if you were one of the many college leaders who has worked tirelessly to ensure that processes are in place and staff are trained to the highest degree in order to offer excellent safeguarding and pastoral care, this comment would render one a bit miffed.

However, I know that this is not the case for every principal in that auditorium. Not all campuses are created equal. My friend works at a huge inner-city college, of which some campuses are high-tech, super-efficient hubs of excellence and others, including the one where my friend is based, are the opposite.

Last year a 16-year-old student was taken into a classroom at the end of a secluded corridor, where a group of other students smashed his head with a snooker ball in a sock. For me, the more shocking part is that, upon regaining consciousness, the boy was put in the back of a taxi and sent to AE, where it was discovered he had a fractured skull. I can only assume that the fact that neither an ambulance nor the police were called was due to huge gaps in staff training. The fact that this incident didn't reach the ears of even directorate level suggests something other.

The point is, staff were ill-equipped to deal with the incident, never mind do anything to prevent it. While I hope such events are rare, there are more everyday concerns in some colleges that revolve around inadequate processes and a lack of interdepartmental communication.

Buck perhaps did not play well to the audience she addressed. But surely a politician's role is about more than cosying up to those in positions of responsibility. If any principal was compelled to take a closer look at their organisation's record after Buck's PR blunder, then long may she continue to state the bleedin' obvious, however difficult it is for those unused to hearing it.

Sarah Simons works in a large FE college in Mansfield.

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