Virtual College is Now a Reality

Dale Potts
The newly completed Tynedale Virtual College looks set to make a significant impact on future education provision across Northumberland and at the same time set the standard for other rural areas to follow as a Pathfinder project.

The project demonstrates how old or disused buildings can be brought back into full use at little cost and is innovative because it provides a design solution to the challenges posed by delivering vocational and work based learning across one of the most remote districts of England, stretching to over 1,000 sq miles. Since the Virtual College project was completed, Northumberland County Council’s '14-19 Learning Network' is able to bring opportunities to children living in outlying areas who would otherwise have needed to travel into town for their education, with all the difficulties this creates.

As a result of their strategic partnering relationship with Northumberland County Council – called the Northumberland Alliance - international project management and cost consultants, Faithful+Gould has worked on the project with Newcastle-based multidisciplinary consultant, Waring and Netts.

The completed scheme provides specialist vocational training from four satellite educational centres – Low Prudhoe Depot which is used for building maintenance training, Queen Elizabeth High School provides catering and hotel management training, health and social care are available from Haydon Bridge High School and engineering technology is accessed at Prudhoe High School.

All four sites are linked via a Virtual Teaching Learning Environment so that students can share knowledge and data as part of their education, thus allowing young people living in remote communities to benefit from the same opportunities for learning as those living within urban locations.

Gary Marshall, associate director for Faithful+Gould has been responsible for managing and co-ordinating the construction process for the scheme from inception to completion. He said:

"Faithful+Gould has a great deal of education sector experience. In this instance, we worked closely with the Northumberland Strategic Partnership from the outset to pull together the total funding required and also to ensure that the interests of all the various stakeholders were fairly represented. It has been a rewarding experience to work on a scheme that will make a real difference to educational opportunity within Northumberland."

There are 547 students ion the 14-19 year age group living in the Northumberland County Council region who are now provided with a number of courses and training opportunities which would simply not have been possible in the past.

Lyle Craig, project technician from Waring and Netts, thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of working within tight timescales and budget constraints to deliver the only college of its type in the country. He said:

"The unusual aspect of this project is that only a small part of it was built from new. Most of the buildings were already in existence, so it just shows what can be achieved with some lateral thinking and careful planning.

"The Prudhoe Depot was built in the 70s, is owned by Tynedale Council and leased back to the College. At Queen Elizabeth High School we adapted the existing catering facilities to provide a restaurant setting for training purposes. Local residents are now able to come in for a meal which the students prepare and serve.

"The Haydon Bridge site is the only one to require more intensive construction work. It was a large, derelict stone building, set within a conservation area, which had not been used for 12 years. We refurbished it to provide four teaching spaces and a staff room together with other training facilities and it is now used to deliver health and social care modules."

The Tynedale Virtual College is a collaborative partnership, run by local colleges, the four West Northumberland High Schools and work-based training providers.

The total construction value of £1.65m was met by the Northumberland Strategic Partnership (£1.4m), Learning and Skills Council (£450k) and Northumberland County Council (£300k), with the residual funding used for fit out costs.

Other members of the project team included R W Gregory – services engineer, Fairhurst – structural engineer, Todd Milburn Partnership – quantity surveyor, Harry Kindred – contractor for Queen Elizabeth High School and ROK - contractor for Prudhoe High School.