From education to employment

AoC President David Collins talks construction in his first ever column for FE News

Dr David Collins CBE, President of the Association of Colleges and Principal of South Cheshire College

I don’t suppose that there is anyone currently running a college who has not at some time or other had cause to employ a builder. Maybe it’s just me but it still came as a bit of a surprise that the multi-million pound college building project is subject to the same frustrations and delays as the kitchen extension or the remodelling of the bathroom.

Except of course in the home environment you don’t have to deal with a small army of project managers, architects, quantity surveyors, planners, mechanical and electrical specialists, structural engineers and health and safety experts. You would expect therefore a degree of realisation that everything wouldn’t really be as smooth as those pitching for the project management contract would have you believe.

Having just got the builders on site and the piling rig thumping away in the background I’m just beginning to realise that the whole thing is, in what seem to be the favourite words of the construction industry, “a bigger job than I thought”. The concrete hasn’t yet been poured and I’ve already aged ten years.

I should have expected that the gods weren’t entirely on my side when the first Quantity Surveyor’s report quoted for 132 toilets but only 120 cubicles or when for some obscure reason the first architect’s plans contained more than a dozen baby changing rooms. I know teenage pregnancies are rising and every college will be faced with three or four students who make their own particular contribution to future student numbers each year but with twelve baby changing rooms we could cope with half the under twos in Crewe.

Then there was the debate about the environment. The biomass boiler – so eco friendly if only it didn’t require a fleet of high polluting vehicles to feed and the production of an “ash disposal plan” without which Crewe could have begun to look like Pompeii; the windmill project (ruining TV pictures for the neighbours while generating the same amount of power as my grandmother’s three kilowatt electric fire); and the solar heating which I’m sure would have worked fine although we don’t seem to have seen the sun for the best part of a decade.

In the end we all settled for ground source heating, which seems to involve drilling hundreds of holes to the centre of the earth but shouldn’t upset anybody. OK, so I exaggerate – but you get the drift. In fact in retrospect the only thing that has gone completely to plan has been the steady arrival on time of everyone’s invoices.

I suppose I should be grateful. The government has provided a not so small fortune to rebuild the college sector and up and down the country there are some magnificent buildings opening up that will completely transform post 16 education and training. In eighteen months time we should be there – but the angst and the pain on the way. I wanted to compare it to pregnancy and childbirth only to be told by my female colleagues I was being a typical man and talking rubbish.

There have been bizarre moments of course when in the early days I found myself praying that the site survey would not come across a greater crested newt – the only creature in the universe with the power to stop an army of bulldozers dead in their tracks or even worse a hint of a Roman remain. I must confess too when a local rival announced that they were about to launch a multi-million pound project of their own I was sorely tempted to purchase an old roman pot and scatter a few shards next to the foundations.

I’m also now compiling the definitive list as to why the price and of course the consultants’ fees continue to rise. For those who are about to enter this minefield it’s basically very simple: If the size of the building goes up or down by more than a millimetre, if the price of materials in any part of the world rises by a fraction of a dollar, euro, rand or rouble, if the ground contains any rocks larger than a small pebble then expect a visit from someone with a case for an increase in fee. Luckily I’m told this is all covered by a line in the budget called “contingency fund”, which are polite words I’ve realised for builders’ insurance and consultants’ bonus.

I‘m assured of course that it will be all right in the end and the chairman is already rehearsing his speech for the opening ceremony. As for me I think I’ll be lying down in a darkened room – probably the one where they’ve forgotten to put in the windows.

Dr David Collins CBE, President of the Association of Colleges and Principal of South Cheshire College

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