World-class facilities that will deliver ‘unparalleled learning opportunities’ for North East students are set to move forward, after a successful £3m bid to Government.

Sunderland College will be rolling out prestigious new T Levels from a new cutting-edge immersive environment, after the Government confirmed it will fund the transformation of a space within its Bede Campus. The 1920s Bede Building will see its old hall undergo a complete refurbishment, with the inclusion of a sophisticated, 360 degree immersive visualisation ‘dome’ created within it, that will allow students to train in a number of virtual reality environments.

The dome, a fully integrated immersive solution, will create virtual realities for students studying in several technical disciplines. The major refurbishment will also include the creation of an amphitheatre-style seated area, and a number of innovation suites and flexible spaces for employer led training.

North East firm Malcolm Hollis has been appointed to oversee the major development and a construction partner Engie has been appointed to deliver the designs – which were developed by North East architect, Seymour Architecture. Work will commence in January and will be completed in October 2021.

Ellen Thinnesen, chief executive of Education Partnership North East, which includes Sunderland College, said: “I am absolutely thrilled that we have secured funding to develop what will become a leading technical skills and digital innovation centre. The centre will be a game changer for our college and most importantly for young people and employers from across our region.

“Bede is a stunning campus, that has already benefitted from major capital investment over the last few years to ensure that, behind its beautiful red brick façade, we’re able to offer first-class educational experiences. This latest investment will raise the bar yet again, and the plans we have for the new centre will position us right at the cutting-edge of education. The new centre will be a fantastic regional asset that will ensure our T Level provision is exceptional and we are able to increasingly deliver a valuable pipeline of students to meet regional skills shortages.”

The new centre will allow the college to develop student’s knowledge, understanding and skills in a shared VR facility offering flexible applications for all T Level disciplines. For instance, health students might learn CPR in a simulated football stadium, where the sights, sounds and reality of an emergency response situation are recreated by digital 360 degree technology, a learning environment radically different to the confines of a traditional classroom.

Similarly, T Level students studying construction will be able to shape the way a health and safety worksite scenario unfolds in response to their decisions. And supported by the college’s technical team, employers will be able to recreate their manufacturing plants within the centre using 360 degree immersive technology for training of existing or future employees.

Sunderland College will begin delivery of its new T Level provision from the new centre from September 2021. T Levels will offer a new and unique curriculum, which will include employer led education and technical training for students, within industries such as construction, digital, health, science and education.

As well as exceptional facilities, the college will ensure its offer is anchored by close links to employers, and will shortly be announcing new strategic partnerships to support the development of the digital innovation centre as a vibrant business hub ensuring employers are at the heart of the next generation of talent.

“We want this facility to be a collaborative space, where businesses co-design and co-deliver education to ensure that we maximise the value of this space,” Ellen added. “We’ll be working with partners from a range of industries to simulate their working environments, and ensure every T Level student leaves us with unmatched theoretical knowledge, and authentically developed skills enabled through digital technologies, meaningful employer partnerships and industry placements.

“We’re a future-focused college, and this new centre will absolutely exemplify that – it’s a place where education and business will converge.”

As well as being an innovative centre for T Level training, the college will open a small sensory environment within the centre where T Level students will gain real work experience supporting the delivery of digitally informed immersive therapies for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Ellen added: “This will be a truly life-changing space for children and young people with SEND, and we are determined that the centre will deliver maximum advantage to people from across the city of Sunderland and wider region.”

The college is working alongside Sunderland City Council to shape its plans for digitising the city through roll-out of ubiquitous 5G connectivity. Council leader, Councillor Graeme Miller, said this latest investment in digital infrastructure represents another step in the city’s transformation into a truly smart city.

Councillor Miller said: “Sunderland was named Smart City 2020, so it’s apt that we end the year with yet another exciting announcement of digital investment, this time led by the college.

“Digital is permeating every sector, so seeing it embedded into education in this way is fantastic – this new space will really bring to life the transformative effect technology can have on not only education delivery, but on our more vulnerable residents, who will be able to make use of this incredible space too.”

The news has also been backed by business leaders.

James Ramsbotham, Chief Executive of the North East England Chamber of Commerce, said: “This is absolutely fantastic news for Sunderland and the region generally. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about education and skills over the past 12 months, it’s how important gaining ‘hands-on’ experience is to the development of future talent, be that through student work placements or apprenticeships.

“This is a superb example of how – by working with forward-thinking organisation such as Sunderland College , and embracing the latest VR technology – we can ensure as many young people as possible have the best opportunity to develop their skills and establish a pipeline of future talent for years to come.”

Why Education Partnership North East (EPNE)?

Highly commended - Employer of the Year, Sunderland Echo Portfolio Awards 2019

Engagement with Employers - Association of Colleges (AoC) Beacon Award 2017

(Sunderland College On-programme Survey 2017)

Selected by DfE for 2021 T Level pilot to deliver the new high-quality technical qualifications.

98% overall employer satisfaction - Employer Survey 2018/19