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11 storeys without an ending

Ian Nash looks at the post-16 colleges unable to raise the funds to repair and extend their premises while a private finance scheme falters. Orpington College is a victim of its own success. Built for 700 full-time students in 1962, it now has 1,600. Numbers went up by 10 per cent last year and are set to rise a further 16 per cent by the autumn.

Nine portable classrooms at a nearby disused social services treatment centre helped, but the crunch has come. The cabins should be replaced and even more space is needed. Independence from local authorities and the pressure to expand further have not helped.

Inspectors from the Further Education Funding Council recently praised the college located on the south-east edge of London. The "prime reason" for students choosing Orpington was its reputation. It attracts people from inner London and Croydon, particularly for A-levels. But the inspectors went on to cite a major problem - poor accommodation.

Not only was there inadequate room, but the 11-storey building, in the heart of a bustling shopping centre, was structurally unsound. Roofs were leaking all the way down to the first floor, concrete was falling from the structure and all the windows needed replacing.

Staff were even more alarmed when a recent fire drill showed it would take at least eight minutes to clear the building, which has narrow labyrinthine corridors.

John Parnham, the principal, said: "A survey last year showed that a new block of nine classrooms and reception area would cost Pounds 500,000 and we could afford half of that."

A much larger figure, Pounds 802,000, was needed for essential repairs and, until last December, the college was confident of getting the bulk of the cash from the FEFC. Orpington was one of 11 colleges identified last year by Hunters, the FEFC's building consultants, as needing further investigation.

The college is also a remarkably low spender - 17th from the bottom out of 456 FE and sixth-form colleges in England and Wales and the worst-funded in Greater London. The governors thought their case for more cash was unassailable.

Then, following the autumn Budget, the rules were changed. Instead of cash up front, colleges would have the right to borrow cash, with FEFC backing.

The FEFC sanctioned the loan for new buildings but only if all the work, including the repairs, was done at once. The governors, including two businessmen running multi-million pound companies, were incensed. The Pounds 1.25 million loan amounted to more than one-third of the college's Pounds 3.5 million annual revenue.

John Garside, chair of governors, said: "The funding council went on for a year about the help they might give and finally said they would not help. We saw no point in sitting around complaining but got on with going for the loan. It is unbelievable the bureaucracy we are now falling foul of."

All the big banks including NatWest and Barclays refused to lend money for maintenance work. The TSB finally said "yes" but then backed off after its solicitors said the management had no proof that they owned the building.

Since the college has an estate worth Pounds 7-8 million, said Mr Garside, the loan would be a good business proposition. But arcane bureaucracy now makes it doubtful that the new building will be ready for September when 200 new students are set to enrol.

Yet in one sense Orpington is lucky. Relations with Bromley education authority have been good since independence. John Parnham believes it spent as much as any strap-cashed council could on emergency repairs before incorporation.

"Even if we settle the problems of the loans we need," said Mr Parnham, "it will take cash that we would rather spend elsewhere. Apart from the library there are lots of curriculum developments that I am afraid we will have to put on hold."

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