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Record 20,000 step up to study

Four-page special report in Reid Kerr College, Paisley. From poor relation of further education's chalk-and-talk era to a pound;22m campus, Jim McBeth charts Reid Kerr's rise

There are those who may still remember the imperious and indomitable Miss Kerr, a headmistress apparently borrowed from St Trinian's who, in the 1960s, stalked the corridors and chalk-and-talk classrooms of Reid Kerr.

A sign hanging over the main entrance to the college's Oakshaw building, declared: "Man does not live by bread alone." However, the atmosphere when Miss Kerr (no relation) was principal was more Dante than divine. "Abandon all hope ..." would have been appropriate to a structure that seemed to celebrate post-war Latvian architecture.

The blue-panelled Oakshaw building, the original Reid Kerr college when it was the poor relation of further education, is now part of a new pound;22 million campus of 18 acres, where a record 20,000 students - 2,500 of them full time - learn for life and work.

Buildings do matter. Douglas Paxton, director of finance and corporate services at the college, who is presiding over its transformation, propounds the philosophy with some passion. "The psychological effect on staff and students is instant and immense," he says. "When they first saw the new pound;12 million teaching block, they were astounded."

Mr Paxton proudly shows off the coffee pod where skinny decaf latte is served, the shop and the communal computer carousels which are more reminiscent of airport than academia.

He indicates the smells within the hospital ward in the care department and the perfumed air of the hair and beauty salons as indicators that the college might be an academic establishment, but it is in the real world.

Of Reid Kerr's pound;22 million refurbishment programme, more than pound;12 million has already gone on a new teaching block and another pound;8 million will pay for two new builds to accommodate the creative arts department and a construction and engineering unit.

"One of the compliments we get is that this doesn't look like a college,"

Mr Paxton says. "It's exactly what we're striving for. It wasn't designed as a college but as a place of learning where people, many of whom have worked all day, would be pleased to come.

"The majority of our students have other lives. We welcome, we don't intimidate or threaten. We are saying: 'There are no barriers here. This is for you.' "

It seems to work. Students are now staying longer on courses and most new students are referred by word of mouth.

Mr Paxton adds: "Reid Kerr is about the practical, hands-on skills, from computers to care. The students who come here have an average age of 27 and they do things: they use their hands.

"There must be room for physical flexibility, to push desks together, to create the traditional chalk-and-talk, to form horseshoe environments, to put people in corners with computers and let them get on with projects.

"The exterior of the building is my least concern. It is how it works that is the focus.

"An architect wants people to pass his building and be amazed. I want people to walk into a building and feel the same emotion.

"A building has to look nice and we'd all love Corinthian pillars. But my concern is: does it do the job for the people who use it?

"Our buildings have to accommodate people who need to come back, to retrain, to continue in education, to gain further qualifications. That doesn't happen in a university, so we have to look and feel different from one."

The college has certainly put its mouth where that philosophy is: pound;12 million on the teaching block, pound;3 million on the Abercorn building, which is on another part of the campus, and pound;3.5 million on the Moorcroft Centre in Renfrew.

Mr Paxton is in no doubt there is progress: "When you consider the past, in the 1960s for example, we have made what I consider to have been a quantum leap forward."

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