The new Disability Act requires colleges to reconsider the environmental needs of students. Andrew Mourant reports
If you run a Learndirect centre in the high street, the competitors for your customers are as much Virgin and Starbucks as other education providers.
The term "customers" may make traditionalists shudder yet learning centres are vying for time, attention and money with multiple retailers and leisure providers.
The premises must feel right and look bright. Moreover, within two years, they must be accessible to disabled people.
Martin Hinchcliffe, Learndirect brand manager whose special interest is design, has produced a 70-page booklet pointing the way to a future in which barriers to demand, engagement and retention will be swept away.
He spent 15 years in FE, often in uninspiring surroundings. The 2,200 Learndirect centres, many in FE colleges but many more in town centres, are no less a brand than Marks and Spencer. But despite the growing willingness of commerce to admit that design is important, Mr Hinchliffe still detects ambivalence.
"I think there's a general perception that it's just decoration or superfluous tarting-up," he said. "Yet design and layout can help functional and emotional needs. But it can also send out the wrong message and alienate people."
His criteria are the tangible ones of visibility and access; and the less quantifiable one of centres that "fit with self image". Design, he thinks, should encourage social interaction and pleasure in learning, either individually or with others.
Some establishments have achieved this better than others. Mr Hinchcliffe believes that this can only be for the good; though knows of no statistics to prove nice surroundings help recruitment. However, studies of retail environments suggest that cramped and oppressive places tend not to part shoppers from their money.
Good design is about intelligent and creative use of interior space, an exercise that need not be costly. It's not about the bombastic new build that is a feature of some schools and colleges.
"First-rate design and architecture are wholly in tune with the user," said Mr Hinchcliffe. "My concern is that some of the monumental architecture has a hostile resonance." Much of Design for Learning considers interiors from the perspective of disability. For educational premises the deadline for meeting the needs of disabled people is September 2005. By then, they will have to have made "reasonable adjustments to overcome physical barriers to access".
Mr Hinchcliffe doubts the sector is sufficiently prepared. "It'll have to cover a lot of ground," he said. "It baffles me how some institutions will be able to implement the ideal."
He feels also that the legislation itself falls short, failing to cover those with problems other than registered disabilities - for instance, partially deaf people.
Threaded through his publication are around 30 recommendations aimed at making life easier for the disabled - commonsense touches such as phones, reception desks and swipe-card entry systems at the right height; clear and visible signs and posters; easy to manage main entrances; keeping floors clutter free.
Such mundane considerations may not win architectural awards. But, says Mr Hinchliffe, they may make a lot of difference to a lot of lives. Yet colleges with old buildings face real problems complying with the 2005 deadline.
Rod Gribble, director of corporate services at Weston college, Weston-Super-Mare, is very aware of the issues. "At West Cliff, our site for creative arts and design, we have five grade II listed Victorian buildings that it would be difficult to make major changes to," he said.
"That's one of the reasons we're abandoning it."
Weston will also leave a 1960s site at Loxton Road, half of which is inaccessible for disabled users. These inconvenient buildings will be replaced by a new pound;12.5 million site in the town centre, funded substantially by the Learning and Skills Council.
Meanwhile, the college will spend pound;3.5m on more improvements to its main campus at Knightstone Road where, with the tight deadline ahead, foresight in providing for the disabled has paid off. "Over the past eight or nine years wherever we refurbished we made things completely accessible for wheelchair users," said Mr Gribble.