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New buildings lift results

Spending pound;20m on renovating a college has shown increases in attainment of 3.9 per cent. Joseph Lee reports

new evidence suggests results will be improved by the multi-billion pound building programme for England's colleges.

By 2010, the Learning and Skills Council's annual investment in new and improved buildings will run to pound;750 million - the equivalent in cash terms of a new Wembley Stadium every year. All colleges will have been updated by 2014.

Research commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills shows new buildings help below-average colleges get better results, as well as encouraging more people to enrol at all colleges. Bill Rammell, the FE minister, said: "I think FE capital funding has been a huge success story across the country. In 1997, there was nothing in the mainstream FE capital budget, and now we're looking at pound;750m a year being invested."

The study, by consultants at Frontier Economics, examined 133 colleges over five years, about three-quarters of which had received capital funding.

Projects costing more than pound;1.5m attracted more students to enrol, with an extra 92 students taking part for every additional pound;1m in investment above that threshold, the researchers found.

While there was little improvement in results at colleges which already boasted high success rates, below-average colleges could expect to see students gain more qualifications after large renovation projects.

A pound;20m rebuild would typically increase attainment by 3.9 per cent, but only projects worth at least pound;9m had any effect on student success.

Julian Gravatt, director of funding at the Association of Colleges, said:

"The issue is that it's a college-driven programme. They put forward proposals for improving their own buildings. That's why high-achieving colleges end up getting more. Having more central directives might well lose the sense of governing body and college ownership of projects. They have been delivering them on time and on budget."

Mr Gravatt said investing in new buildings, which colleges have been doing since incorporation in 1993, raises expectations, which has an affect on results.

Colleges have raised about pound;2.8 billion of the pound;4.5bn so far committed to new buildings in FE through savings, land sales and borrowing.

Mr Gravatt said he did not think the improvement in colleges could be explained by new buildings attracting higher-achieving students but was a case of the same profile of students doing better because they are inspired by their surroundings. "It's our experience in colleges that new buildings raise expectations and raise hopes. It sends a message to students that this is something different and better," he said.

Among the projects now under way is one at Middlesbrough College, which is selling three of its four sites and replacing them with a new pound;70m campus.

New rules introduced by the LSC last month will require colleges to put the environment first when proposing new buildings by showing how they will conserve energy.

Sheffield College's replacement for its Castle College site includes wind turbines and solar panels to cut the use of fossil fuels by a quarter.

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