The practice nets ran right up to the plate-glass windows of the conference hall on one side of the room. In the nets, batsmen from the Indian cricket team fended off balls hurled at 100 mph straight at the windows by a flurry of fast bowlers. Only a thin net and Sachin Tendulkar's bat came between the audience on that side of the room and a shattering experience.
Meanwhile, on the platform, Estelle Morris was telling us how wonderful we could be if only the rest were anywhere near as good as the best. Every point she made was accompanied by the sound of Tendulkar's bat thumping another ball off to the far side of the practice ground. Now, for some of us, the choice between watching the world's greatest batsman in action and listening to a politician speak is easily made. But on this occasion, pre-conference reports had warned us that the secretary of state would be bowling a few bouncers of her own and sure enough, there were enough balls whistling past our ears to keep us focused on what she had to say.
It is hard to dislike the education minister; she has an air of vulnerability and fragility which wholly belies her toughness. At times, her diction betrays the effects of sitting too close to John Prescott on the front bench: "I am aware," she told us, "of the enormity of what you have done." It took me a while to realise that this was not a condemnation of our collective misdemeanours, but praise for the breadth and scale of the sector's undertakings.
For the most part, she was in fine form scoring points to all corners of the ground. Who could argue that a focus on improving teaching and learning is a good thing; or that a better qualified workforce will do an even better job. Most of us could agree that colleges and employers need new forms of partnership to meet skill needs; and when was better leadership not a good idea?
Outside, the batsman played forward and missed; the ball hit the stumps and thudded into the back of the net, just short of the window. Inside, Estelle turned to her killer point. The real problem with FE, she said, was that it lacked a framework of accountability. Yes, I thought, brilliant! More audits, more inspections, more reviews, more paper, more targets. Why had no one thought of it before? The message was clear enough; the great umpire in the sky would raise his digit of dismissal to those whose average scores were deemed to be not good enough. Keep a straight bat, score at an appropriate rate, no dodgy boundaries over the heads of slip-fielders, or we'd be back in the pavilion with our careers in tatters. The bowlers would be a fearsome combination of the Office for Standards in Education, the Adult Learning Inspectorate, Learning and Skills Council provider reviews and new individual college targets for achievement and retention levels, set by the local funding body. No googlies there, then.
The wicket was turning decidedly sticky. A few brave souls ventured a question at the end of her lecture. "Clunk" came the sound of willow on leather outside the window. "Thud" came the sound of Estelle's bat across the heads of the questioners inside the hall. "Don't give me that nonsense about core funding," she said. "It's no good saying you want to be free to spend your money as you like. I have to keep control of some for my own initiatives."
She had just patiently explained, as if to people who might find it hard to grasp, that her pound;43 million sweetener could not be spent to improve teachers' pay because it was a one-off sum and not core funding for the department. But the irony evaded her. "You see," she explained to her audience of financial simpletons, "if I spent it on pay, it would need to re-appear every year in the budget and I simply cannot make that ongoing commitment." Clearly leg before wicket, but we were too cowed to appeal.
This core funding issue is one of trust. Why can't a Labour government trust working-class institutions like FE colleges to manage their own improvements? Some of us are starting to think that, just like the ludicrously ineffective apparatus of "accountability" and "standards" money, this government just doesn't do what it says on the tin. How's that!
Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College