For too many mature students, further education is synonymous with sitting in an old-fashioned, draughty classroom listening to a lecturer drone on, while being only half engaged by the subject. Compared with the attention - and glittering monetary prizes - that are lavished on other areas of higher education, FE has for too long been the Cinderella of adult learning.
But now, with the Government intent on seeing "50 per cent of 18-year-olds receiving further education", the sector is going up in the world. Add to that the annual sum of £5bn that the Department for Education and Skills will be handing to the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), and prospects for post-16 education look a lot rosier.
And there are now the buildings to prove it. To get a sense of just how seriously the Government is taking the non-university sector, you need look no further than the £13.5m City & Islington College Lifelong Learning Centre in Finsbury Park, London. The fact that one of Britain's top architectural firms - Wilkinson Eyre, the winners of the Stirling Prize for the Gateshead Millennium Bridge - was chosen to do the design confirms New Labour's level of commitment.
The swish glass-and-steel structure - complete with avant-garde illuminated sculptures - opens straight on to the busy Blackstock Road, thereby connecting directly with the community it is aiming to serve. "Since opening in January, the building has transformed the way we work," says Peter Marsh, the deputy principal of City & Islington. "The number of students enrolling has gone up, and the new space and equipment mean we can be more flexible in the way we deliver courses."
Islington has a high proportion of refugees and ethnic communities, so here the further education sector, with its emphasis on access and vocational courses, takes on an extra importance. City & Islington College as a whole has a £60m redevelopment programme, of which the centre is just a part. Its prestigious new sixth-form college at the Angel is already up and running. By 2005, the college will have completed the biggest investment programme in the history of further education.
The centre's architect, Stafford Critchlow, opted to retain the three-storey 1880s school building that was already on the chosen site, wrapping round its solid redbrick walls a state-of-the-art atrium and education hub. The airy rooms on the top floor of the old block have been turned into treatment rooms for complementary health students. But the zig-zag traces of the 120-year-old boys' and girls' staircases are still visible alongside the glitzy, angled bridges and walkways.
The centre has a slightly unfinished feel to it, not only in the way the Victorian building's original walls have been left largely untreated, but also in the way that heating pipes are visible and concrete floors uncovered in the new sections - an intentional effect to create an environment that is reminiscent of the world of work.
"We think this is one of the most important aspects of the building," says Marsh. "Adults who haven't done particularly well at school don't want to walk into another unappealing educational environment 20 years later. It needs to be grown-up and industrial, and I think we've achieved that."
As a further inducement to learning, swipe cards and turnstiles have been eschewed in favour of a security system based on ID cards and reception staff, who recognise every student. The reception area is large enough to accommodate assessment sessions with prospective students.
Next to the atrium café is a catering project where those with learning difficulties and disabilities learn to cook and sell food to their fellow students. Free e-mail and internet access are also available, along with counselling and childcare facilities.
Energy-saving devices are integral to the design: solar shading to all south-facing windows to prevent heat gain, the use of glazing to bring natural light into the core of the building, and flat-screen, low-energy computer screens. Classrooms have many different sizes; those accommodating more than 10 students are wired up to the internet, have a ceiling-mounted projector, a teacher's PC with DVD player, and an independently wired video cassette player.
New floors are in yellow and old ones in pink, and the stylish theme continues with the furniture: Robin Day Polo chairs, height-adjustable Rizzatto tables, Lensvelt storage and office furniture, and Philippe Starck chairs in the café. It's a far cry from the stereotypical image of non-compulsory further education.
The centre has rooted itself even more firmly in the community by choosing, unusually, to site a new public library at the centre. Internal upper bridges link the library to the college - no doubt helping to persuade those hunting for books or videos to enquire about courses. The Bridges to Learning Centre provides introductory sessions on using computers, along with support and materials to help with English, maths and personal health issues.
"Most of the people using the new centre are 25 or over and studying part-time," says City & Islington College's director of students, Frank McLoughlin. "So we needed a centre that offers an adult ambience, with good services such as catering and a nursery. But many adults have had a disappointing experience of learning in the past, so if we are to attract them back to studying, the centre has to be totally different from the conventional view of an educational institution."
The range of courses offered - literacy and numeracy, English language, access to higher education, massage, beauty therapy, ceramics, pottery, IT, computing and teacher training - is similar to what went before, except that, until now, learning took place on about 10 different sites.
"Of all educational institutions, colleges of further education are those that suffer most from the tension between national priorities and the need for local responsiveness," says Grace Kenny, an educational buildings expert at the Department for Education and Skills. "At City & Islington, not only did staff have to spend a lot of time travelling between sites, but students, too, suffered from having to use a set of scattered buildings. Now that has changed."
The roll call of further education colleges who see the centre as a blueprint for their own regeneration programmes include Liverpool Community College, South East Essex College at Southend, Newbury College, Telford College in Edinburgh and Widnes Sixth Form College.
Last month, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the LSC Forum announced the winners of its "Colleges for the Future" competition, in which architecture students submitted designs for the type of building they'd want to learn in.
Speaking at the event, Mark Haysom, the chief executive of the LSC, said: "Learning must take place in modern and stimulating settings. This is the way forward for further education. We can't expect people to gain the skills [they need] for the 21st century in buildings designed for the 19th century. By using the talents and enthusiasm of design specialists in this way, we will achieve our vision."
Alan Johnson, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, says: "If we are to deliver reform and improve standards across the further education sector, then we must create environments that inspire and support both teachers and students."
The only real test as to whether breakthrough buildings like City & Islington's are successful is whether they get the thumbs-up from students. Time will tell. But if first reactions are anything to go by, it looks as if the Finsbury Park site is set to become the prototype for an exciting range of new colleges of further education.Reuse content