It's all glamour in Birmingham now

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Every now and then, something I write reminds people that I live and work in Birmingham. For weeks afterwards sympathy cards flood in, along with the offers of free weekend breaks in a hotel of my choice and the occasional food hamper.

It really is not that bad. It is much cleaner than London, has a better, or at least cheaper, big wheel and the city centre is entirely Gherkin-free.

Service with a snarl - the ubiquitous restaurant experience in the capital - is here practised only on Jeremy Clarkson, and Birmingham's more-miles-than-Venice waterways are now almost entirely free of supermarket trolleys and rusty bikes. - except on Friday nights, of course.

Also, once a year, it hosts the annual festival of further education, also known as the Association of Colleges (AoC) conference.

There can surely be no greater accolade than to deem the city worthy of hosting the nation's cultural elite: FE principals, chairs of governors, a sprinkling of Learning and Skills Council personnel out on parole for a day or two, a spy from the Learning and Skills Development Agency conference planning team, and the managing director of lecturers' union Natfhe in his best suit and on his best behaviour. And, of course, a journalist from The TES.

This year, the conference theme was "glamour and the heavyweights", clearly chosen to advance the real purpose of the conference: how to be better than the London-based summer bash organised by arch rival LSDA.

The glamour theme got off to a bad start when a scheduled video appearance by HRH the Prince of Wales was replaced by the conference chairman reading his script. She was good but did not quite have the ears for it.

She was followed by Education Secretary Charles Clarke, however, and he did. And from then on, only the good-looking, high-powered and the downright sexy were allowed on stage.

The secretary of state was warmly received. The first part of his speech told us how wonderful and superb we are. The second half, as is now mandatory at such events, told us the degree of our wonderful superbness was still too low.

The most important thing Mr Clarke announced was the establishment of a new strategic body for quality improvement. I did not catch how this would work because the announcement was drowned out by the cheers of the delighted audience and shouts of "bravo, about time and just what we need".

It is clear that Mr Clarke's postbag has been so full of letters from colleges begging for a new strategic quality body that he has finally and reluctantly bowed to the weight of our demands.

But then it was time for the real crowd-pullers. One way to get more women into the upper echelons of the profession, apparently, is to have Alastair Campbell as the main speaker. Mean, moody and fresh from eating the BBC for breakfast, he gave it to us straight, which was something of a surprise. We had all expected more spin than a Shane Warne flipper.

The women I talked to afterwards could not remember a thing he said, but they all remembered the way he said it. I could not see what all the fuss was about. Another speaker, keeping to the glamour theme, put up a giant picture of Kylie Minogue wearing not very much.

Our own chief executive delivered a brilliantly-crafted, measured defence of what colleges achieve. John Brennan oozes integrity and sincerity, in stark contrast to the synthetic enthusiasm we are sometimes subjected to from political quarters.

Mark Haysom, the LSC chief executive, is a classy performer until he gets off-piste at question time. Questioned by a governor on governance, he said he had nothing much to say.

The star of the show, however, was also its most glamorous contributor by a mile. The managing director of Birmingham football club is an incredibly gutsy and beautiful young woman called Karren Brady. She handled our questions with a dexterity only Mr Campbell had matched, and if we have to have a non-FE chief executive of the LSC, she gets my vote.

She cannot kick a ball, but at least she has got her club into the Premiership.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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