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Plymouth remodels naval hangar as a specialist centre

In a 1970s Ministry of Defence building, where apprentices once worked before taking up jobs in the nearby naval dockyards, Plymouth College of Further Education is creating a specialist A-level and GCSE centre to extend the courses it provides and more than double its student numbers.

At a cost of Pounds 3 million, the huge hangars where youngsters once toiled to become shipwrights, welders and marine electricians are being broken down to create state of the art lecture theatres and classrooms. There will be a new sports hall and three science labs.

Plymouth's first students for the newly-created Goschen Centre - made possible by the decline in the defence industry - have already arrived.

The centre's presence has not been lost on local schools with whom it is set to compete. But a spokesman for Devon County Council gives a bullish response: "There is an element of competition but at the same time as colleges are offering A-levels, schools are moving into the vocational field."

Fifteen of the 17 secondary schools in Plymouth provide A-level courses. All eight of the community colleges offer courses for adults. "It's horses for courses," says the spokesman. "Some students are happy to stay at school while others want to go to a college. The message we are getting is that there is probably room for both."

Demographic changes mean the number of school-leavers will continue to rise in the city. Four years ago there were 9,000; this year close to 12,000. And more are staying on - 74 per cent this academic year.

Plymouth College also vigorously markets itself well beyond the city boundary, taking in towns more than 20 miles away including Tavistock, Ivybridge and Liskeard. Regular bus services are provided. On the day of A-level and GCSE results, a mobile caravan from the college toured schools, offering advice and touting for any re-sit business.

However, direct mailshots to those about to leave school had to be abandoned after complaints from rival heads.

But college marketing officer Sue Handford stresses that advice was "aimed to be the best for school-leavers.

"We are not afraid to say to a prospective student 'We don't think our provision is right. Have you thought about other areas or staying on at school?' "In the past a lot of our provision was limited by accommodation. Now we have been able to create good facilities and we are looking to raise the quality of what we do and make it a better learning experience."

The college has a slightly different profile from many other FE establishments, she says. Where traditionally an FE college is seen as a second chance for students who don't do well in GCSE, Plymouth has many who want to progress into higher education.

The college hopes to increase the student roll for GCSE and A-level courses from 300 to 700.

"We have a position in the market place where we are bringing in people who want the adult atmosphere and the staff support we can provide," she says.

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