It is the biggest event in the FE calendar – the a chance for colleges managers and leaders to discuss policy and swap innovative ideas.

But when the Association of College’s (AoC) Annual Conference rolls into Birmingham tomorrow, what will be the key message?

Although a quick scan of the programme shows a wealth of topics, such as future funding changes and policy updates, Martin Doel, the chief executive of the AoC, believes the main talking point of discussion could be college deregulation.

As revealed by FE Week in September, the Education Bill contains measures to give colleges greater freedom from government control – which could see more power handed to governing bodies and more freedom over instruments and articles.

Once the finer details are debated in the House of Commons today, Mr Doel is keen to discuss its potential impact with his 352 member colleges.

There will be some fun and opportunities to socialise. We want people leave energised, rather than feeling like they need to put their boot straps on.”

Mr Doel said: “It’s inevitable there will be discussions on funding, but what I would like to talk about responsibility and how we will use it. We need to think where we will be in three to five years and what will the world be looking like.”

But away from the weighty discussions and number crunching, Mr Doel insists there is more to the AoC’s premier event.

He said: “There will be some fun and opportunities to socialise. We want people leave energised, rather than feeling like they need to put their boot straps on.”

To do this, the programme for this year has been substantially refreshed, with clear objectives for each of the breakout sessions.

While some of the more than five hours worth of sessions will tackle the latest issues in the sector, others will celebrate achievement.

If that’s not all, there will be more than 80 exhibitors in the vast conference hall and more than 15 key opinion formers in the plenary sessions.

Talks will be held by important FE figures including John Hayes, minister for FE, skills and lifelong learning, and Geoff Russell, the chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, as well as Mr Doel himself and Fiona McMillan, president of the AoC.

The new shadow secretary for education Stephen Twigg will also be in the hotseat at the conference in place of Andy Burnham MP.

And this week’s three-day event will see the culmination of a year’s work to ensure the conference is ready and focusing on the right – and timely – issues.

Mr Doel said: “The evaluation process goes on straight away after the conference finishes. We do a big debrief when things are fresh in our minds.

“We then won’t set the main themes until later in the year. We want the conference to be able to focus on the things people are talking about.”

He added: “The breakout sessions are good. We do limit it to 13 per session to ensure that they get a good audience.

“Obviously, there will always be things you have to move around. But it’s a big sector and there’s a lot to talk about.”

With the aim of helping colleges “thrive, not just survive” the AoC has set itself a high target – but Mr Doel is confident it can be achieved.

He said: “It’s always a mixture of trepidation and being excited to be doing the conference again. But I’m looking forward to it. We go the whole year speaking to our 352 member colleges and this is the one time we see them all in one place.”

However, despite his delight at an overall increase in visitors, Mr Doel is disappointed at a reduction in the number of people attending from government agencies, such as the Skills Funding Agency or the Young People’s Learning Agency.

Over the last few years, Mr Doel said he has seen the number of people from such departments fall from around 150, to roughly 30.

“Fundamentally, Mr Doel says, the conference is a chance “to get together and talk about challenges and positives” within the sector.

It is for this reason he is trying to find a way to win them over.

He said: “The numbers are up overall, but the number over the last two years has fallen substantially in terms of government bodies and agencies.

“I understand pressure on government funding but we need to think about how to get them back to the conference, but not commercially.”

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