Dug into a hole

18th September 2009 at 01:00
National Star College is a further education college with a difference - it caters for students with disabilities and learning difficulties. But, like more than 50 institutions, it was left without vital funding after `catastrophic mismanagement' at the Learning and Skills Council. So with the next phase of redevelopment on hold, where does it go from here?

Nestled in the Gloucestershire hills in an area of outstanding natural beauty, National Star College in Cheltenham seems more like a small campus university than a specialist further education college for pupils with physical disabilities and learning difficulties. The original 1875 building, with its wood-panelled entrance and high ceilings, stands at the edge of the site, along with more recent buildings that have sprung up to support the growing number of pupils and staff.

Paul Davies, 19, has graduated after three years at the college and is going to study web design at Gloucestershire College. Perhaps an even bigger achievement is that he is moving into a flat with two friends from National Star. Asked what the school has enabled him to do, he laughs: "Where do I start? I couldn't wash, I didn't have the confidence to do household chores or go into town on my own."

Most teenagers of school-leaving age place a lot of value on their independence, but the word comes to signify a new world for Paul and the other National Star students. "Now I'm independent," he says. "I can go into Gloucester on my own; I can do things by myself. Star's made me realise what I could do."

Paul's father, Michael, can vouch for that. "Before he came here, Paul was .", and then at Paul's encouragement, he continues: "Well, he was lazy. He didn't want to do anything. It took a couple of months, because he was coming home every night to start off with but eventually he just started to do things on his own. Which was surprising for us."

There are plenty of success stories about students who have gone on to work with dance companies, or who go on to further study like Paul. But almost more important in this case is the fact that more than half of National Star College leavers go into more independent forms of living. They might always need high levels of personal care, but will be more autonomous in their day-to-day lives.

Students have the opportunity to join sports clubs and attend professional theatre shows and wrestling matches, organised by an active student council. The college's Star Bar in the heart of the campus is heaving at weekends.

But what is most noticeable about the college at the moment is the wide expanse of concrete behind the car park - essentially, an abandoned building site. The college's five-phase regeneration plan was approved in principle by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) in 2006. Phase two was completed in spring of this year, and the application for pound;5.2 million towards phases three and four went to the LSC in October. But along with 57 other colleges, National Star was left without funding when it emerged that the LSC had spent almost its entire pound;2.3 billion budget.

Phil Willis, chair of the Commons innovation, universities, science and skills committee, said in July that "catastrophic mismanagement" within the LSC had resulted in the overspending and subsequent halt to so many college building projects.

Helen Saxton, director of National Star College, started to think there might be a problem in December when she hadn't heard anything about the application, but was eventually told in January that all of the LSC's capital building projects had been put on hold. More money was made available from the Government budget in April, but colleges had to prove that they were "shovel-ready" to start building this summer. A further set of criteria was then put forward when 180 colleges - many more than the LSC had expected - proved to be in that position.

But National Star has to meet a very different set of needs than most FE colleges. Unfortunately, this further set of requirements failed to take these differences into consideration and National Star only gained a minimum score in one category (local regeneration), so it was impossible for them to secure the funding, despite being ready to go.

"I would say the best thing our college does is give our students a voice and make them autonomous young people, and that's a culture and an ethos that's enshrined in our school," says Mrs Saxton. "For us, we're not a local provider. We do have some local regeneration work, but how can we score against that?"

The school community had been hopeful that the college would be treated differently when it came to the final assessment, but learnt in June that funding had been denied. It could be five to 10 years before the situation is reviewed again, by which point a backlog of colleges needing building work will have grown longer.

"In 2006 National Star College forged the way to get the first approval in principle of funding for an Independent Specialist College of this scale," says Mrs Saxton. "It had already taken us two years to get to that stage . Talks were put on hold in 2004 because the LSC was reviewing its strategy for learners with learning difficulties and disabilities for learners across the whole of the provision."

The picturesque surroundings and antiquated buildings may look idyllic, but they aren't suitable for National Star students. As mainstream schools enrol more pupils with special needs, specialist schools such as National Star are taking in pupils with increasingly complex requirements. The older flats may seem adequate at first glance: the rooms are a decent size, there is a bathroom and shower for every 10 students and a large kitchen and dining area between 40. But many aspects of the building pose problems.

The size of an electric wheelchair means that the communal area cannot hold even half of the number of students it's meant to cater for. Students also compromise their privacy and personal dignity when their carers take them from bedroom to the bathroom.

Alex Giles spent his first year at the college in a room in one of the old buildings. "It felt pretty cramped and wasn't very good socially," he says. "Obviously I couldn't have many classmates in there in my free time - you could only fit about one other wheelchair." His new room at a newer residential block, Shortwood, is much more advanced.

The new Cleve Bungalow and the refurbishment of Shortwood were part of phase one of the regeneration. The rooms have en-suite bathrooms, wide corridors, overhead tracking to ease hoisting into the bathrooms and possum controls so that the TV, window blinds and air conditioning can be manipulated by eye movements if necessary. The kitchen has adjustable work surfaces to fit around wheelchairs and the corridors are wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass each other.

Phases three and four, worth about pound;10.4 million, would create new residential accommodation with enabling technology, as well as a separate hydrotherapy pool - at the moment, the swimming pool doubles as both, which limits its therapeutic use. A dance and drama studio and new education buildings are also part of the plan, with a shop and cafe open to the public.

"Phases three and four, (which have been put on hold) are the most transformational phases," says Mrs Saxton. "They will allow us to take out a very aged and inappropriate residential unit, which houses 40 students at the moment. It's the wrong setting for students to learn how to live autonomously."

The planned regeneration would mean that the learning for living and work programme could be taught in a real and practical environment - vegetables grown in the garden could be sold to the public in a real shop. "We need this new build to take the next step," says Dawn Dickens, area co- ordinator for learning programmes. "Complex needs require a complex learning environment."

National Star also runs six-week residential programmes for students at specialist colleges throughout the UK. Many of the students haven't stayed in purpose-built accommodation or been involved in the multi-disciplinary education projects offered at National Star. Developing students' independence, even just for a few weeks, is life-changing and the new buildings were intended to open up this option for more students.

Rich Amos was last year's student union vice-president, and although he's leaving the college as a student, he is continuing work there with a local company to set up an online community and service for disabled young people called S?eak.

He credits the college for giving him self-belief and the opportunity to develop, and believes the same chance should be given to more disabled young people. "Many students haven't been able to try to drive an electric wheelchair - we're able to provide that opportunity for students," he says. "With disabilities becoming more severe, we need to upgrade facilities to give students the support they need . I think that the LSC really needs to look at itself and where its priorities are."

National Star College has thousands of supporters who share this sentiment: there are more than 4,450 signatures on a Downing Street petition asking for a review of the LSC's decision; a Facebook group in support of the campaign has more than 1,500 members; and Stephen Hawking and the MP for Cheltenham are also fighting the college's corner. Crucially, the National Star appeal was fundraising to match the amount from the LSC, and one of the college's major benefactors has asked for its pledge back, now that the building plans have been put on hold. Teachers as well as students are bitterly disappointed by the LSC's decision - most have worked with the college for a long time and have all been on their own personal journeys.

David Finch, director of college development who oversees the deployment of enabling technologies for students, started out as an art teacher 21 years ago. Davina Jones, area co-ordinator for work-related learning joined as a personal tutor in 2005. Even Helen Saxton, the chief executive and principal joined the college as a secretary 28 years ago.

"You get hooked in this place," says Paul Tarling from the creative and performing arts department, who left his job as a solicitor to work as an education facilitator 12 years ago. "You believe in it and you want to do more."

Put simply, the college has to follow through with its regeneration plans if it is to meet students' needs. If the facilities aren't available, enrolment numbers have to be cut. But these teachers are used to thinking creatively. "No one says no," says Jenny Burke, one of the college's work skills tutors. "It's different degrees of yes."

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