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'Why the AoC conference made me feel better about the world'

Given the kicking that the FE sector is taking at the moment, one might expect the mood at the Association of Colleges' annual conference to be somewhat subdued. But there was an atmosphere of positivity, determination and resilience, writes Sarah Simons, who works in FE colleges in the East Midlands

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Being a normal college lecturer at the Association of Colleges' annual conference, an event where delegates are so senior that principals are on the ladder’s middle rung, is like being a 7-year-old allowed into the school staffroom. (VERY IMPORTANT THINGS are discussed and you discover that the teachers are real people with first names and everything.)

It’s a tricky crowd to move amongst without feeling like an impostor. This year I decided to chuck my insecurities to the wind and march into Birmingham’s ICC like I owned the place. That strategy disintegrated the second I tried to register and was put through a rigorous “your name’s not down, you’re not coming in” routine by overzealous “welcome” staff who were looking on the wrong list. After finally gaining entry, the only thing I could do to disperse my rage was to raid the free stuff on the exhibition stands. And this conference is the Harrods of free stuff. None of your carrier bags full of flyers here, madam, there is gold in them there hills – by which I mean mobile phone accessories, fancy hair products and expensive cuddly toys.

My mood lifted by my stash of loot and a lovely chat with one of my ex-principals, I settled into a day of top-level FE thinkery. The first session I went to was entitled “Inspections – fit for purpose?”. The panel comprised Paul Joyce, Ofsted’s deputy director for FE,  Elaine McMahon, a former principal and, as far as I could gather, a Mary Poppins-style interim college leader, and David Sherlock, who it would seem has held most senior FE and skills roles from principal to chief inspector. Chaired by Mark Malcomson, principal of City Lit, it is safe to say that this gang know what they’re on about. Just as well, as the audience was packed with principals who were ready for debate, albeit in the most charming way they could muster considering no one wants to get on the wrong side of Mr Ofsted.

Of course, that didn’t stop the difficult questions being asked, and most were indeed directed at Mr Ofsted. The thing with Ofsted’s Paul Joyce is that, just like the grown-ups the child sees in that staffroom, he too is a real-life person with a first name and everything. You ask him a question and he answers it. There’s no shuffly politicking; the straightforward answers are refreshing.

There was discussion surrounding the need for an independent quality and assessment provider in these days of FE maturity. Elaine McMahon suggested we should look as how post-19 education is assessed in countries with more successful educational outcomes than the UK, and that through triangulation from financial agencies, awarding bodies and college self-assessment we could get a much better picture. This made total sense; enough of the outside to be kept in check, but without surrendering all power to an all-powerful assessment god. She finished by telling us that colleges “doing it for themselves” was the answer. This may be true, but it instantly set Aretha Franklin off in my head and I was a goner.

Speculation surrounding Ofsted’s annual report suggested that it may have a “different tone” this year and, though it will make no allowances for the current traumatic state of the sector in terms of inspection grades, we should perhaps expect “context alongside the outcomes”. So that’s nice.

Next up, I go to the session named “Developing a college-based British values strategy”, hosted by the National Council of Faiths and Beliefs in Further Education. I hadn’t heard of this organisation before.

I have clear views about the divisive nature of a set of values for being a decent person having the word "British" stamped on them by government, and I expect to get the right hump during this session. Wrong!

It would seem that many colleges have indeed used the "fundamental British values" as a starter to explore what their own college values and associated behaviours truly mean. Sam Parrett, principal of Bromley College, and Marion Plant, principal of North Warwickshire and Hinckley College, both talked with sincerity and passion about their quest to develop values in a meaningful way in their colleges. Marion also discussed how to best evidence them for the purposes of a visit from HMI; from the obvious suggestions of making sure values are clearly displayed, to the development of a value- based curriculum offer and celebration events.

This session made me feel better about the world. True story.

Finally, I am tasked with interviewing Martin Doel, AoC chief executive. I have a minute of panic, remembering the time at this conference a few years ago when I was accidentally left in a small room with Vince Cable, the business secretary at the time. Seeing that my badge read TES, Mr Cable kindly asked if I wanted to ask him anything. Not trusting that I wouldn’t ask him a Smash Hits-style question, I shrugged and said, “No. Yer all right thanks.“ We were both a bit shocked.

Strangely I am not in the least bit nervous about chatting with Martin. Though he is arguably the biggest of the bigwigs here, he has also allowed me to get away with perhaps a more informal line of questioning than he is used to on numerous occasions.

When I ask him if the mood at the conference is different this year (in light of the intense and sustained kicking the sector is taking) he tells me that the people are determined to do their best for their students. They are survivors, they are copers and they have huge integrity. Most leave the conference with a renewed resolve, but he warns against worry overtaking to the point of victimhood.

“The sun will rise tomorrow, students will turn up, colleges will do their job. They’ve been doing it for 125 years and they’ll do it for another 125 years and they’ll do it better than anyone has a right to expect them to.”

Survivors? Survival is only a concept when something bad has happened. We all know what the bad thing is. Lack of financial support for the sector to do its job. I ask Martin how much more we can take from the government and how much time we should invest in fighting it.

He rightly points out that in a democracy, a government has an elected mandate to carry through policies. There is a legitimacy to the direction of travel. But we should challenge the detail of those policies, whether that’s about apprenticeships, English and maths or increased productivity for a higher technical and professional education.

I leave the conference feeling more optimistic for the sector than when I arrived. I have a renewed resolve. In the cold light of day, I am concerned I have been Derren Browned.

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