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Winter in new Birmingham

The world, they say, is divided into two sorts of people: those who go to the annual FE conferences and those who stay at home and do the work.

Happily, I am in the first bunch and get to nod off in the back row during the politicians' talks on raising achievement (always ours, not theirs). I am always awake again in time for the gala dinner, however.

Actually, the world of FE conference-goers splits further into those who think the Association of Colleges annual conference is where it's at, and those who think the brash new Learning and Skills Development Agency conference has stolen its thunder. The AoC goes for winter in Birmingham.

The LSDA plumps for summer in the capital. So it's the AoC by a mile, then.

In the best traditions of investigative journalism, and against the advice of my doctor, I have decided to go to both this year. There are many reasons for going to the AoC conference: the chance to see "New" Birmingham and shop in the "New" Bullring centre; the lip-smacking opportunity to meet accountants, auditors and insurance agents plying their wares in the conference ante-chambers; a chance to hold the microphone in shaking hand and ask the minister a career-ending question (yours, not his) in front of 500 people all amazed at your recklessness; an obligatory dip into the seminars to be humbled by everyone else's innovatory expertise; the possibility, not so remote as you might think, that you could learn something, or meet someone interesting from the Learning and Skills Council; the chance to hear and spread the hottest gossip; and the irresistible allure of Birmingham's Broad Street fleshpots.

This year, there is one reason compelling beyond even those. This is the year of the debutant. Not one, but two new boys are to undergo their conference baptisms. John Brennan, the new AoC chief, has been here many times before, of course. But only as the boffin who dazzled us with his command of funding and student numbers: the only man in Britain who understood it and stayed sane. Can he make the transition from brainbox to platform pugilist, verbally mugging ministers on our behalf?

And what of the novice CEO of the LSC of whom we hear such good reports? He is not hampered by any knowledge of FE but will his pizzazz and journalist's bonhomie carry him across the gulf of ignorance? They say he is extremely focused. Will he blur before our very eyes? Stay tuned for this and more, after the break.

The new boys apart, the conference was a bit flat. The politicians had nothing to announce, no more money and, thank heavens, no new initiatives.

So they made do with rhetoric and exhortation. Ivan Lewis is exceptionally good at this, and funny, too. He really did sound like a man we can trust, so I suppose he'll be whisked off to another job before long.

But back to the main event. John Brennan was first up. He has been billed as the quiet man, and while it's true that platform skills are not his main strength, this is not a man from the Iain Duncan Smith school of oratory.

In any case, oratorical fervour is not always to be trusted, is it? We can all think of great public performers who said nothing in grand style or who made evil sound like a patriotic duty.

John is clearly a man to be reckoned with. He is determined, committed to FE and its goals, immensely knowledgeable, respected, conscientious and likely to play well with politicians, as he needs to. Barnstorming, it wasn't; measured and convincing, it was, and if the other quiet man had managed this level of sincerity and conviction he would still be leading the lost cause.

And what of the new chief executive of the LSC? We were told he was off colour and had risen from his sick bed to address us. God help us all if ever he recovers his health! New Labour, New Birmingham, New LSC, he told us. You got the sense that he would change its name completely if he could, but settled, modestly, for following Tony's example. This New LSC will have a New structure of nine regional directors - the new, dej... vu, LSC?

The New LSC will be much smaller, he more than hinted. He is a new broom and he will sweep lean. As for colleges, he can see that we are "sagging at the knees" so he is going to get off our backs. All this he said in the clearest terms; just as well given his determination to rid us of our beloved jargon and put plain English in its place. This will happen quickly: "we want to kickstart 2004 in a genuinely meaningful way", he said, in plain Californian.

He confessed his ignorance of the sector and made it look like a strength.

He talked of openness, honesty and transparency, passion and professionalism. He won us over and we want him to succeed. But since we haven't yet found our jargon-free tongue, no one dared ask a question at the end.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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