Profiting from the values environment

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Not before time, Scotland's colleges are benefiting from major investment in estates. At Cardonald, we have the exciting prospect of opening our brand new teaching block and family centre this summer. By the end of 2007, the rest of the campus will have been refurbished and we will be able to boast a set of college buildings fit for 21st century learners. But how should they reflect our values?

It wasn't until John McCann of the Scottish Further Education Unit facilitated a session on strategic planning for our board members and management team that the words "values environment" entered our vocabulary.

Organisations with strong, positive, shared values tend to be the most successful. Yet we were discussing how to make best use of a pound;22 million investment without putting values at the heart of our planning.

Some of the issues are not complicated, though they do require decisions to be taken about priorities. For example, we are putting in proper washing facilities for our Muslim community to use before they pray, as well as moving the main college entrance so that it is accessible for everyone instead of diverting wheelchair users to a separate entrance. These changes are important for our values of equality and inclusion and, although the costs involved may push other items lower down the priority list, it's a price worth paying.

Similarly, we want to create an environment where learners' achievements of all kinds are celebrated and valued. Our design therefore includes more and better display areas.

We want to be seen as an asset by our local community despite at times burdening our neighbours with parking problems, litter and noise. So we are sharing with the community council the cost of installing hanging baskets, to make our street more pleasant.

Another recent discussion in the management team was about giving names to our seminar rooms. When we considered the suggestion that they be named after famous Scots, we realised that most famous Scots were white men and decided that perhaps that approach did not give quite the right messages in terms of equality and diversity.

While referring to our values makes some decisions easy, others are less clear-cut. We pride ourselves on being welcoming and supportive, we want people to feel safe and secure, and we want to present a business-like image to employers and commercial clients. These aims are not easily reconciled. Our new entrance area, with its shop, cafe, information centre and reception desk will be pleasant and attractive. While some younger students may want to gather in the concourse in groups, that can be perceived by others as intimidating, and it creates its own problems of mess and noise.

Another thorny one is the question of ownership. A sense of belonging is a key factor when students decide to persist with a course rather than drop out. Areas that people regard as "theirs" are also more likely to be well looked after.

Why not, then, let staff and students choose their own colour schemes? Well, that's in conflict with efficient space utilisation, which requires most rooms to be used by a variety of different groups. Devolving choice could also make the building as a whole appear messy and fragmented.

Learning from a successful initiative at Falkirk College, we have compromised by trying to promote ownership through a cross-college working group.

Sometimes I wonder why we are making more work for ourselves by raising such challenging and potentially unanswerable questions about our values environment. But they have made a refreshing change from the more technical problems.

So thank you, John, for provoking us to extend our thinking.

Ros Micklem is principal of Cardonald College in Glasgow.

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