From education to employment

Annual Conference at Stansted Sees Great and Good Gather for Debate

High above the clouds, jetsetters revelled in the morning sunshine as they were whisked off to exotic locales around the globe. For the glitterati of learning providers however, it was to be Stansted Airport that would set the scene for a showdown of FE heavyweights.

As befits the nations learning provision elite, this year’s Association of Learning Providers (ALP) conference took place at the somewhat appropriately titled Radisson “SAS” Hotel over the 17th and 18th of May 2006, with guest speakers Martin Dunford, Chair of the ALP; Bill Rammell, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning; David Sherlock CBE, Chief Inspector with the waning ALI; and Graham Hoyle, Chief Executive for the ALP.

Unlooked ““ for Promotions

A curious perk of the conference was the striking transformation Margaret Hodge MP took; scheduled as a keynote speaker for the morning session of day 2, some process clearly morphed her into Paul Warner, Operations Manager for the ALP. As he eloquently noted: “I started yesterday as an operations manager. 24 hours later and I”m a minister. Progress at last!”

Nonetheless, the continually ebullient Gaynor Barnes performed a valuable service as Chair of the Conference, smiling profusely when on stage and shrinking into the background when appropriate. Her enthusiasm could not be faulted however, considering, according to her brief biography, most of her spare time was taken up with DIY.

The Day

Martin Dunford kick-started the proceedings on a positive note, signing off the title of his speech to “At Last ““ Progress”, which was followed by an almost rampaging Bill Rammell. As though a stormtrooper set in a far-away galaxy, the spirited MP took the opportunity to thunder his way through a series of “wants” he deemed necessary for the oft-bludgeoned FE sector. “We want a reform of work-based learning programmes. We want to strengthen apprenticeships. We want to do more around gender segregation”. Like the affable Gaynor Barnes, his enthusiasm was exemplary.

Yet his speech set the standard by which all senior administrative clipboards should be set. Rolling out the words “Globalisation” and “skills deficit” would not seem revolutionary, for they are hardly brand new ideas. Yet to sit in conference throughout the two days suggests the central importance of these terms to the ALP, such was the vehemence of its use.

The Way Forward

Still, the congregation took a deep breath, a quick shot of espresso and sat again as each speaker launched into a lengthy monologue detailing the horrific state of our nation’s skills capacity. Evidenced clearly in the workshop entitled “QIA ““ The Way Forward”, led by an impressive Andrew Thomson, Chief Executive of the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) for Lifelong Learning. “About 17 million adults cannot do Maths and English to the same standard as the average 11 year old,” he said with disheartening assurance.

Following a light lunch consisting of onion bhajees and slightly parched kebab sticks, the afternoon workshop sessions followed practically the same pattern as those of the morning. Stephen Marston, heading up the Department for Education and Skills(DfES) “DFES View” for “Skills Development”, painted a similarly horrific picture. To listen and assimilate the information garnered from these professionals, the UK is presumably eating itself up from the inside. “Even if we meet our current targets, which in itself would be a pretty heroic achievement, we would still be middle of the pack.”

Day 2 began largely as Day 1 had, with the notable exception of a certain Margaret Hodge MP, formerly of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Gaynor emitted her own personal brand of sunshine and proceedings, well, proceeded, in a decidedly quieter manner than the previous day, as a number of the delegates returned to their work. Again, the debate about skills, or rather the almost biblical referral to the lack of, and the threat of globalisation, was yet again thrust upon the audience.

One curious point to note though: two of the more “controversial” speakers were allotted to the excellently quoted “graveyard slot” which was the post-lunch second day period. Ian Ferguson, Chairman of Data Connection and Ellie Russell, Vice President of FE, NUS, injected some serious debate in an otherwise synonymous repetition of the need to “do” everything. Granted, but the delegates gathered had been “doing” just that ““ what they sorely needed was a unified thrust to follow from above, both governmental and agency based, which sadly, they didn”t quite get.

Still, much was achieved by the Conference itself. Of the exhibition outside, there was a curious reference to the oddly titled hotel. Befitting it’s “SAS” credentials, “ASET”, a national awarding body which licences centres in the UK to deliver its qualifications and awards displayed a series of sheets with their courses on offer. You could study for a “Certificate in Defensive Driving”, a “Certificate for CCTV Operatives (Public Space Surveillance)”, or indeed, a “Certificate of Introduction to Working in the Security Industry”¦

Vijay Pattni

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