27th November 2015 at 00:00
Did the dog eat Morgan’s conference speech?

Morgan pulls out of conference

For those of us in FE, the Association of Colleges’ annual conference is a highlight of the social calendar. And whereas it’s expected that the great and the good of the sector will turn up obediently at Birmingham’s ICC each year, the politicians can be a bit more hit and miss.

Although delegates would probably not have been too devastated had Nick Boles failed to turn up to give his somewhat spiky address last week, there was some excitement about an additional treat in store at this year’s conference. Education secretary Nicky Morgan was due to do something that Michael Gove never managed during his entire time in office at the Department for Education – actually turn up to the FE sector’s premier shindig.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, she didn’t make it. As the assembled guests were tucking into their slow-cooked beef at the conference’s gala dinner, an apologetic DfE official broke the news that the secretary of state would not be coming the next day, owing to a “very urgent” meeting that had cropped up.

All this after weeks of negotiations about exactly what format her stint on stage would take, and the insistence that Ms Morgan would get to talk about one of her favourite topics: character.

In the end, it was left to junior education minister Sam Gyimah to step in at the last minute to represent the government in the final keynote session of the conference.

Accordingly, his speech and question-and-answer session were less than illuminating. “With a few days until the spending review, I cannot reveal too much,” he told delegates. One wag at the conference suggested an alternative title for the slot: “Avoiding answering questions on behalf of my boss.”

The speaker who followed Mr Gyimah, Lenny Henry, was quick to poke fun at the minister’s boss. “She sends her apologies for not being here today, ladies and gentlemen,” the comedian told the conference. “She had a fantastic speech written out and everything, but apparently the dog ate it.”

Free brandy was hard to digest

Colleges have become accustomed to regular budget cuts since 2010, but the AoC annual conference had continued to keep its member colleges’ principals in the style to which they were accustomed: by laying on port and brandy for them to enjoy at the after-dinner drinks reception.

But it seems that austerity has arrived. This year, guests had to fork out for their own digestifs. Although FErret was naturally devastated at missing out on the traditional postprandial tipple, it may have been for the best. A room full of principals quaffing brandy at a time when their membership body has proclaimed that it cannot afford to offer any sort of annual pay rise for college staff would not have looked too clever.

As Marc Whitworth, the AoC’s director of employment policy and services, put it ahead of the University and College Union’s national strike: “Cuts to funding for both adults and young people have left budgets stretched and this means colleges have to make some tough decisions.” As, indeed, do their membership bodies.

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