John Stone is chief executive of LSN

As the FE sector braces itself for challenging times ahead, it has been right to focus in the first instance on the critical funding that goes directly toward teaching, learning, and skills improvement. However we cannot ignore that 40% of all colleges have buildings that were constructed between 1960 and 1979, meaning college managers have a great deal of old infrastructure to maintain. During the 1980s, a lack of funding left a huge maintenance backlog and 50% or more of colleges' estates fell into very poor, or even dangerous, conditions.

This meant that when the capital funding rapidly increased under the last Government, estate redevelopment became the focus for many principals and senior managers.

We are highly unlikely to see such levels of capital expenditure again and, despite the Learning and Skills Council's Building Colleges for the Future programme, the majority of FE colleges' buildings are still in need of either modernisation or replacement. This should remain an integral aspect of the sector's strategic planning process.

There has been a huge amount of research commissioned by the likes of the LSC demonstrating the benefits of capital investment in improving recruitment, retention and attainment in colleges. This argument, which was widely accepted by the sector, must maintain its place in today's landscape of spending cuts.

Step back 10 years – the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) had virtually no capital budget yet the sector still managed refurbishment and small scale new build projects. Available funding then rose dramatically under the LSC but, whatever the level of spend, the one thing that remained consistent was that the FE sector delivered capital projects on budget and to schedule, and at a lower price point than similar projects completed by other branches of the education sector.

Capital programmes do not have to involve relocation to a new site or a budget beginning with '£30M'. Relatively modest levels of capital investment make a difference. This means rethinking an old assumption that new build is the only solution. There are many examples of how small scale capital projects have transformed the quality of the college environment and, as such, the learner experience.

Colleges are very good at implementing estate projects. Let's face it – the summer holiday period is one of the busiest times for the estates team, and refurbishment projects are completed with efficiency and without a second thought. This approach needs to be adopted on a more structured basis, taking into account the long-term needs of the estate as a whole.

Ten years ago, rationalisation was the buzzword – all capital projects needed to be justified on the grounds of effective space utilisation among other things. Driven by the LSC's affordability policy, college capital programmes soon got out of hand in many instances and the grounds for investment were driven by growth and the net present value.

It's now time to reconsider rationalisation and to be realistic about the resources required to deliver excellent tuition. There are a growing number of private-sector organisations looking at ways to help the FE sector. Yes, their goal is to create revenue – but, if approached correctly, working with private developers could be a win-win situation. It could also pay off to play on the position of others. For example, utilising offsite leased premises may be a far more cost-effective and flexible solution for certain areas such as construction, hairdressing and beauty therapy.

It's important not to overlook the ongoing needs of the estate – both maintenance and statutory compliance – to prevent your college's estate from entering another downward spiral. While this is more evident for those colleges that weren't lucky enough to benefit from the LSC's Building Colleges for the Future programme, new buildings bring with them their own set of challenges.

There are savings and efficiencies to be made in college estates. With more distance learning courses on offer, onsite provision is shrinking. We don't need to learn any new tricks, simply bring back skills learned a decade ago. A property strategy doesn't need to involve investing £30M. Modest levels of capital investment can go a long way if the college has a clearly thought-through strategy that recognises provision that is delivered inefficiently in the wrong place, or from the wrong type or amount of space.

In 1997 the FEFC published Circular 97/19 Accommodation strategies. The messages in this still apply, so brush the dust off and reacquaint yourself with a classic.

John Stone is chief executive of LSN, the not-for-profit organisation focused on making learning work for further and higher education, local authorities and schools, public services, work-based learning and international organisations

Find out more at our college estates seminar, 25 January 2011
To hear expert views and get innovative, value for money ideas for improving the college estate, don't miss our half-day seminar Is it Back to the Future for college estates?, taking place on 25 January 2011 in Holborn, Central London.

The programme features key speakers including John Bryan, formerly Chief Executive Bond Bryan Architects; Alison Clarke, Principal and Chief Executive, Canterbury College; Chris Hearn, National Head of Education Sectors, Barclays Corporate; Stephen Beechey, Director, Wates Construction; Chris Tremellen, Director, Aecom Davis Langdon and Andrew Aloof, Director, Black Pepper Design.

You will:

  • hear about radical alternatives to timetabling and utilisation
  • discover how you may be able to afford more than you think – hear from a Principal who thinks you can
  • get the latest on capital funding and alternative sources of funding and partnerships from market leaders
  • learn how refurbishment can be done effectively and with value for money – avoiding the pitfalls
  • get valuable ideas to help you develop an effective estates strategy

Find out more and book your place

LSN's property specialists also provide a range of support to help you ensure that your estate is operating as efficiently and effectively as possible. Find out more

Read other FE News articles by John Stone:

A new map for reaching 'outstanding'?

Replacing EMA needs to learn lessons from the past

Reading College: A different approach

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