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Real homework for brickies-to-be

Students are literally building for their future in one pioneering college project

Most students arriving at their place of learning would be surprised to find it dominated by a building site. But students at Gloucestershire College's new £35m dockside campus have come to expect just that.

As well as the usual array of shining science labs, computer rooms, theatre and sports hall, the college's new Gloucester campus is home to a unique development that staff have dubbed "the Construction Street". It's a 50m-long covered road, big enough to accommodate three full-size house façades and even a bungalow. There are only a few drainage trenches in place – the rest is up to the students.

Trainee bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, plasterers and decorators will be given the chance to work on the site, putting the theory and skills they have learnt in the workshop into practice. The project will be planned and overseen by students on the construction management course, so it's a bit of a community effort.

"The idea came out of a need for inside-outside space," says the college's vice-principal, Jeremy Williamson, who supervised the move to the new campus. "We thought that if our students only spent their time in nice, warm, heated workshops then it wouldn't teach them much about real life. We wanted a place where they could do things in a more realistic way."

That the site is partially exposed to the elements also allowed the college to sidestep space restrictions imposed by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). The amount of funding the LSC provides is determined by the number of students at the institution, but because the construction street does not qualify as a formal structure, it doesn't count as LSC-funded space. Williamson knew he was bending the rules, but felt this was justified.

"You can create a commercial kitchen for catering students in one building, which will feed the college," he says. "With construction, it's more difficult. You're always short on space."

The college – formerly Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology – is negotiating a serious growth spurt. The intake of construction students doubled this year, and demand for places has been so high that another plastering course has been scheduled to begin in January. Intensive 12-week courses in key trades such as plumbing and plastering are also being launched for the benefit of those already in the middle of apprenticeships.

Work on the construction street bungalow is due to begin in January, and the project will be finished by the end of the academic year. After bricklaying students have seen to the foundations and walls, electricians and plumbers will move in, followed by the carpenters. Finally, the painters, plasterers and decorators do their bit, resulting in a liveable house in the middle of the campus.

"It's got a kitchen, a bathroom and a couple of other rooms," says Henry Logan, the college's director of technology. "It's a real project for the students to manage from start to finish. They're learning real skills, just like they would at work. I don't think there's anything else like it."

As well as the bungalow, the construction street will accommodate two housing façades and a shop frontage, perfect for students keen to practise their lintels, sills and arches.

"You can only do so much in the workroom," says Adam Gibbons, 21, who is studying for an NVQ in bricklaying. "We can build things like cavity walls and corners, but it's all scaled down and you can't see the full effect of what you're doing. I'm looking forward to building something full-size."

Gareth Proud, 16, a carpentry student, agrees. "I reckon it's a good idea. It'll be nice to be out of the workshop, where you're only really learning the basics. In the bungalow, we'll actually be hanging doors and putting up shelves, so it's quite exciting."

When the building work is finished, the students will be given one last dream task: planning the demolition of their year's work. Images of joyful youngsters operating bulldozers and wrecking balls spring to mind, but Henry Logan is keen to emphasize that his department teaches construction, not destruction.

"We'll let the students do the planning for it," he says. "But I think we'll get the staff to actually knock it down safely." As always, the teachers get all the fun.