The college our children deserve

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THOUSANDS of people have now passed the new landmark building in the centre of Hartlepool, and Mail columnist ALAN WRIGHT was the first outside visitor to take the tour. He admits he was well impressed …

THE new restaurant at Hartlepool College of Further Education is called the Flagship, and there couldn’t be a better description of what this amazing new building will be for the town.

The fact the building went ahead at all is a huge compliment to all at the college and the people behind it.

In these days of tight finances, many funding applications were refused, but Hartlepool is one of the success stories, and for good reason.

Proud principal and chief executive Michael Bretherick told me that it was the central place of essential skills in their planning which sold it to government.

About three quarters of the College’s programme is built around the “STEM” skills – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

These are the key talents which our country needs now and in the future, and the £53m spent in the centre of Hartlepool is seen as an investment which will bring big and genuine returns for the UK economy.

The beauty of starting a building from scratch is that you really can get what you want without having to make compromises, and Michael told me that not a single thing about the new building had disappointed him.

The contractors, Miller Construction, will be delighted to hear that, and it was clear their workforce shared the pride in a job well done.

Chatting to their staff putting in the finishing touches, I was impressed with their view, steeped in North-East tradition, that a person’s skills should be celebrated.

As one worker told me, “Some people look down on people who work with their hands, but they shouldn’t. We are craftsmen and this college is a masterpiece.”

Even before the first brick was laid, the whole College community, students included, talked through what they wanted, and Michael laid down sixteen key principles.

The recipe included a desire for a building which would be calm, open, transparent and light – and how they have succeeded.

From the wow factor of the first step into the soaring atrium to the light-flooded spaces throughout the building, it is a construction which must surely win major awards for its supreme blend of purpose and fabulous visual appeal.

That atrium is going to invite a million photographs from impressed visitors and the many people who will use this iconic space.

The college is keen to become an even more central part of the life of Hartlepool and the region, and soon it will be even more accessible.

As you pass it today, it still has some necessary safety barriers, but they will soon be gone and Hartlepool people will not be able to resist a wander inside.

And the students who will be learning here in a couple of months time are a lucky generation.

It is crucial that education is seen as the way up in life, and any student coming in here can’t fail to be impressed that what has been provided is world class quality.

It feels like a top class hotel or international airport – and why not?

Oddly, I was reminded of a visit to the Lego factory in Denmark many years ago and their slogan – only the best is good enough for our children.

And the young (and older) people who come here will benefit from the same philosophy.

The standard of finish throughout is superb, and the atrium is a marker of what is to come.

It includes a modern food court and a very smart coffee shop which is soon to open in partnership with a top local operator.

The staircase is a showstopper and ideas are already being formulated about how it can be used in big events like the Celebration of Achievement.

It would be worth any amount of hard work for an award winner to walk down those stairs like Kate Winslet in Titanic.

Another clever touch is that the skills at the heart of the college are very much on view from the main reception area.

Huge glass doors, automatic of course, give access to the Skills Academy, and give a great view of the engineering and technical activity which carries on a proud line in Hartlepool history.

Students in the Academy pass through into a zone where they change into personal protection equipment – and everything they need is there.

There’s even a snack bar so that the essential bacon sandwich during a morning break can be enjoyed without having to change back into ordinary clothes and going back to the main food court.

Soon, examples of the top skills of the students will be on show in the atrium.

These include an original 1911 grand piano which has been beautifully restored from a bare carcass into a thing of beauty.

Vintage car fans will see a similar result in a 1946 MG which the motor vehicle students have brought back to life.

From there, it’s a short walk to the huge engineering hangar which will soon be home to planes, engines, and all kinds of real examples of technology on which students will work and learn.

Everything around the college is geared towards filling the needs of the future and economy – and the real jobs market.

Renewable energy is bedded into the fabric of the building and a £350,000 wind turbine has both the obvious practical benefit as well as proclaiming the College’s place at the forefront of an industry which could become very important indeed to our area.

Out to the terrace, the size of a football pitch, and the home of huge solar panels – and very tempting sunbathing area!

One facility already in use is the building management centre where students are working and understanding how to manage a complex modern building like this – everything from electrical systems to timetabling the best use of facilities.

The building does some of the work itself. Incredibly, it is already learning heating and ventilation patterns and does what is necessary to keep the place comfortable and energy efficient.

The design shows elements of sheer genius, especially in the way lighting and art displays will enhance daily life here.

I didn’t see a hanging light anywhere – it’s all clever reflectors and concealed panels – and everywhere natural light floods in.

Many spaces are ready to have some top class art installed, including a major exhibition of the works of Joe Cornish, with his excellent Hartlepool credentials.

At night, and in the winter, this place is going to look hypnotic.

At present, some of the new college is masked by the old building, which will be gone next year, and then the real glory will be on show.

The real treat comes with the views from the top floor.

I was there on a clear sunny day and, as well as just about every landmark in town, there is a fabulous view out to sea and to the cliffs of the North Yorkshire coast.

Some of the higher education and sixth form provision is up here, and it is going to be an inspiring place to work.

It’s the learning spaces which are the real treat.

Builders and other trades have top class real spaces to learn their craft, including covered outdoor working areas.

There are beauty and therapy areas, some of which will be open to the public on a commercial basis, as well as professional quality gyms, massage areas, and sports injury provision.

One other key principle from the start has been an international approach and that is every evident in so many ways.

Students, who even designed the new logo and colour scheme, have taken inspiration from a visit to Paris for one clever installation.

And that will feel very much at home in the company of café equipment from Venice, salon equipment from France, and catering fittings from Milan and the USA.

A look at the ceilings in the Skills Academy sums up the personality of this place. Pipework and services have been left exposed; partly to show the clean lines and quality of fit – but also to show that work done well has a beauty of its own.

One view from the top floor struck me as symbolic.

The beautiful Christ Church (now our Art Gallery of course) reaches into the sky as a reminder of the industrial founders of the town who used the limestone excavated from the new docks for the building.

They built wealth and a new town on the resources around them – coal, iron ore, harbour, and a rail line.

They’d be proud of this new chapter in the story of a college which will build again on our biggest resource today – the skills and character of the people of Hartlepool and the region.

As I was driving away from my visit, the news on radio featured an industrialist claiming that there was a mis-match between modern further and higher education and what the working world needed.

A few hours in Hartlepool College of Further Education would change his mind.