The state-of-the-art Gordon Banks Sports Centre helped win Newcastle-under-Lyme College (NULC) the West Midlands Sports College of the Year award while its new music technology centre has also won plaudits nationally.

The college building strategy is credited with helping more than double the number of 16 to 19-year-old students, from 1,500 to 3,700 (3,300 FTE), in a decade.

Karen Dobson, NULC principal, now has her eyes set on a nearby redundant fire station in the latest phase of a carefully thought-out expansion programme to meet a prediction of even further growth in student numbers.

For someone who comes over as so visionary, however, she is surprisingly cautious when talking estates strategy.

“Be careful what you aim for,” she says.

“If all the lessons since Incorporation have taught us anything, it is to plan for where you ultimately want to be rather than what’s in the current funding pot.”

Four things favour her latest building proposal — healthy financial balances, new learner demands, the capacity to raise the necessary cash privately and confidence that, if necessary, she could make a viable bid under the government’s £270m capital money for FE announced in the Chancellor’s 2012 Autumn Statement.

But Dobson reckons the stop-go strategies, shifts of government policy and inducements to spend regardless have not served the sector as well as they might.

With hindsight, NULC played its cards right, she says, concentrating on its strengths as a substantially 16 to 19 tertiary college with some adult and community learning — £18m versus £4m a year.

“In the late 1990s we built a new cheap and cheerful building for around £2m and shifted our A-level provision there from wooden potable classrooms. It was a bright building and nothing special, but it highlighted how poor the rest of the estate was,” explains Dobson.

And here, she points to the second key lesson since Incorporation.

“Take your staff with you — consult them at every stage,” she says, warning not to get carried away with an architect’s grand plans and in doing so forgetting the people who work and learn in the new environment.

“Staff were involved in considering everything — what things were given space, facilities, size and shape, things like that.

“We tried to give them what they wanted and needed. As a result, because people were given clear explanations, we don’t get moans and groans if there’s disappointment.

“A lot of work was done to make sure the staff and managers were aware of the limitations and they knew why they could not get everything. Our architects were great and had lots of meetings with the curriculum teams.”

The new building was done and dusted by 2008 despite the capital funding fiasco.

But Dobson was appalled to see other colleges “left on a precipice” with delayed maintenances and knocked-down buildings.

“If our finance manger handled it like that we would have been out of business years ago,” she says.

“You would hope a government would have an overall pot size clearly in mind and stick to it” — a third lesson for principals and estates managers.

Will the £270m meet current national building needs?

“There is not enough money, but it might start the ball rolling and spur others on,” she says, bringing her back to the central point about careful planning.

“New freedoms are helping us to go for private funding.

“The problem is there is so much uncertainty — new funding means the government wants us to be more for less. There is the loans issue at 24-plus. Are colleges going to gamble on such growth materialising?

“If you are not financially viable, it’s not sensible to take on more borrowing. The banks are tight with money and colleges are no longer seen as safe customers as they previously were with the economic situation.”

But this is really not so different from the position 20 years ago.

“Now and again people who have not been able to achieve things say you are lucky,” concludes Dobson.

“Yes, true, but even without the lucky bit, it took a hell of a lot of work and was not done overnight.”