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Strictly conference

02 November 2016

The time of the year when the air turns chill and the streets become carpeted with brown leaves holds a certain sense of anticipation. Back in the day, the Association of Colleges (AoC) annual conference traditionally heralded news on the coming year’s funding, and offered an opportunity for sector leaders to plot out a course through whatever schemes, ingenious or ignorant, they had been cajoled into implementing by ministers. There used to be a palpable sense of excitement in the air. Back in 2010 – my first AoC conference, as it happens - this even got the better of then business secretary Vince Cable when he blurted out in his press conference that he would be starring in a Christmas special of Strictly Come Dancing. With it, any hopes for informed debate on further education in the mainstream media went up in smoke and sequins. But somewhere along the line, things changed. It’s funny how cutting funding for adult skills by more than a third over a six-year period can put a dampener on things. Last year, with the sector bracing itself for another barrage of funding cuts after weeks of speculation prophesising more doom and gloom, the atmosphere in the ICC was tense. Then skills minister Nick Boles strolled on to stage, warning that bad news was on the way – and ticking off colleges for allowing training providers to “nick your lunch” by delivering the bulk of apprenticeships. Outside the ICC, the smell of chestnuts and Glühwein hung in the air as Birmingham’s Christmas market got under way; inside, the atmosphere couldn’t have been less festive. As it happened, it didn’t end up being that bad. Funding was protected in real terms. And, not to belittle concerns over the prospect of Brexit, the prospect of leaving the EU does at least seem to have focused minds in Whitehall on the importance of FE and skills. This year’s conference marks a new start for many. It’s a first conference for new CEO David Hughes, and it will be the first chance for many in the sector to see Robert Halfon in the flesh. The new apprenticeships and skills minister has been extremely visible in his early weeks in the job; it will be fascinating to see how his enthusiasm translates into policy in the coming months. And even more encouraging is that Justine Greening is due to attend. If she does, this will make her the first education secretary to address conference for a number of years– a neat symbol of the importance being placed on skills and technical education by the new government. Accordingly, the TES magazine to be published in the week of conference will feature a special contribution to the debate by one of the most significant political players in recent years. We’ll be delivering early copies for conference goers, so pick yours up outside the main hall before the final session of the conference. And if that weren’t excitement enough, there’s another Cabinet minister who once had the fate of the FE sector in his hands who’s in the limelight once more. And, again, it’s through the magic of Strictly that Ed Balls is back in the big time. Let’s just hope that, this time next year, Mr Balls’ most unlikely fan – one Michael Gove – isn’t the one wearing Spandex. Stephen Exley is the Further Education Editor for TES, AoC's supporting media partner at our Annual Conference and Exhibition.