No demolition of our ambition

25th July 2008 at 01:00

As the sunshine is replaced by a deluge of rain, Ian Billyard bemoans the fact that his cricket match is "most certainly cancelled". Inside the college where he is principal, things should be no less gloomy. After all, this is the Leeds College of Building, linked with an industry that is hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

But like the students arriving outside, Mr Billyard is upbeat. He hopes the college will increase its revenue 15 per cent in the next year.

As speculative house-building grinds to a halt, it is inevitable that some firms will cut back on apprenticeships, but other parts of the industry are still healthy. Cuts in apprenticeships will create greater demand for full-time courses.

Leeds has secured its independence after a merger with four local colleges fell through. Mr Billyard had resisted the move in what he describes as a "philosophical difference of opinion" with the Learning and Skills Council, which wanted it.

He says specialist status has helped secure the college's credibility with employers, particularly its reputation for covering trades few others will touch. For instance, while you can learn building all over the country, he says his is the only college outside Bolton where you can learn how to put on a roof.

You can learn another rare specialism here: shopfitting. "Thank God for that," thought Robert Hudson, chief executive of the National Association of Shopfitters, when he heard that Leeds would continue to teach it. "Other colleges in Leeds are not as profitable," he said, "and there was great enthusiasm among them to get in with Leeds to reduce their own losses."

The association's members enrol staff on the three-year level 3 (A-level equivalent) apprenticeship, in which Leeds has the highest completion rate, at 91 per cent.

Mr Billyard sticks with his belief that "big is not necessarily beautiful" and that the college has proved itself by increasing apprenticeships from 4 to 700 in 8 years.

His approach was partly inspired by a Financial Times article about banking, which said that Yorkshire businesses expected banks to come to them, not vice versa.

"That means going out there and meeting those firms, even in their homes if we have to," says Mr Billyard. "Employers tell us they are reluctant to offer apprenticeships, but then often change their minds when they take people on and realise what potential they have."

Down in reception, two visitors are greeted by a staff member. "We're the only specialist building college in the country," he tells them. Merger- mania may be the order of the day, but here being different is clearly still seen as an asset.

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