Appleby Horse Fair takes place in the same week in June every year, and has done so for hundreds of years. For the convenience of those with failing memory it always takes place in Appleby, once of Westmorland, now in re-organised Cumbria. In further education you do something once and it's an innovation, twice and it becomes a tradition. So we have a two-year tradition of an annual November conference of the Association of Colleges which always takes place in Harrogate, an outpost of Surrey unaccountably located in Yorkshire.
The Appleby fair started as a huge market for the buying and selling of horses, with a few stalls on the side where you could have your fortune told, your saucepans mended, or your stock of clothes pegs replenished. Gradually the stalls became more numerous and varied, and the trade in horses became the side-show. Nowadays people with no interest in or knowledge of horses come from miles around to eat, drink and spend money at what has become a giant car-boot sale. Only the press continues to cover the horses, printing elegiac pictures of sad-eyed stallions being washed in the river and ridden bareback by daring young men with a ring in their ear.
Over at Harrogate, the transition has taken months rather than centuries, but is no less telling. What began as an educational event at which sleek thoroughbreds pranced about, showing their paces on the platform, with a scattering of supporting stalls at which to while away the odd moment between sessions has turned into a massive trade fair dedicated to extracting money from corporate wallets. The formal educational agenda is, of course, available as a side-show for those needing a break from the remorseless sales patter.
For weeks beforehand every post brings advance invitations to visit this stand or that, where the very latest in computer systems, or insurance policies, or catering packages can be examined, and where stressed-out chief executives can be assured of the closest personal attention. It is a sign, I suppose, that the sector is acknowledged to be a big spender that so many companies in the periphery of education take so much trouble to thrust their products under our noses. But as you lurch about the exhibition hall, dropping your business card into lucky draws here, sampling the free boiled sweets there, you may hear a still, small internal voice asking "How is this helping students to learn?" One of the odd things about the AOC conference is the high price that the organisers inflict upon cash-strapped colleges. With six colleges in 10 reportedly trading at a loss, laying out several hundred pounds for attendance requires confidence in the value of the event and a steady hand when signing the cheque. Presumably all those eager stall-holders have paid through their expensive noses for the chance to parade their wares. There are also a number of general sponsors of the conference. They will not, I imagine, have bought their exposure cheaply. Many of the speakers will have appeared without demanding a fee. Where is all the money going?
This year's event had the notional title "Creating a Learning Society", but it should have been called "Waiting for Blunkett", because almost every speaker stoked the fires of expectation with speculation about how much money the Secretary of State would throw at us when he appeared, pockets and sleigh bells jingling, for the final session. And not surprising, either, given the leaks, nudges and hints that have emerged over recent weeks. As it happened you needed an NVQ level 5 in Public Accounting to work out what he was saying, but it all sounded like good news. Certainly the stallholders were confidently reckoning up their share of the extra Pounds 725 million which we will allegedly have in our budgets.
If we had all known that at the outset, the mood of the conference might have been a touch lighter. The sector's darling, Baroness Kennedy, instead of offering us any new money actually dared to suggest that we should give some to her, or rather to her bursary scheme. Spending time among the superannuated and the natally privileged in the House of Lords has dimmed neither her chutzpah nor her optimism. Let's give her what she asks for.
The talk was of her, and of a wholly characteristic address from the utterly imitable new chief executive of the AOC. The body language of the delegates spoke of resignation rather than excitement. We will go again to Harrogate next year, out of habit. The press aimed their pens and cameras at the Secretary of State, and in consequence missed altogether the cosy meeting between the general secretary of the lecturers' union NATFHE and a party political education spokesman. They really were horsetrading.
Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College