LAST week Ian Clinton announced that he is stepping down as principal of Blackburn College at the end of the year. Education reporter Jessica Cree talked to him about how the institution has been transformed under his leadership...

WHEN Ian Clinton took over the reins at Blackburn College nine years ago, he drew up a list of 100 things he wanted to achieve before retiring.

And after ticking off 95 of them, the principal has decided the time is right to step out of the limelight.

The 58-year-old said he had no firm plans for his retirement, but would be spending more time with his wife Elaine, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Mr Clinton started at the college in 2004 and found himself at the helm of a place facing job cuts, poor Ofsted ratings and a financial crisis.

Since then he has spearheaded massive changes to produce a turnaround that has taken the college to a new level and brought widespread acclaim.

Multi-million pound construction has taken place to produce complexes like the University Centre and the Beacon Centre. Along with the recent demolition of the ageing Feilden Street building, these developments have changed the face of the area and helped to produce the largest and most modern student campus in East Lancashire.

At the same time, the college has risen up the ranks in Ofsted ratings and groundbreaking overseas deals have been clinched – including an agreement with Russia to train students at two colleges in customer service in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics and a £6.5million contract with the Rwandan government.

He said: “A lot has happened in that time and I am really pleased with how things have gone.

“We started with insolvency, a £5million debt problem and we had to make some redundancies.”

Within months of taking up the post, the college was forced to lay off 100 members of staff in a bid to claw back £3.5million.

But by 2008, Blackburn College was declared outstanding by Ofsted inspectors and the college was turning over millions of pounds a year.

Mr Clinton said: “We were the first college to be outstanding in every area and hopefully we can keep it going until I leave on December 31.

“It was a team effort. Everybody bought into the statement which was working together as a team to be outstanding.

“Initially there was some reluctance, but people did buy into it and they realised we needed to get the nastiness of redundancies out of the way and we needed to get on with things.”

Mr Clinton went on to lead the transformation of Blackburn College’s Feilden Street centre.

The St Paul’s Centre, with IT and sixth form facilities, was opened in 2007 at a cost of £8.8million.

Phase two of the site’s reconstruction was the £14million university centre, which now offers degree courses and a range of master’s qualifications.

Last summer, the 1960s Feilden Street campus was demolished to make room for the extension of the college.

In September the £6million Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) building is due to open and the £8million sports centre will follow suit in 2014.

Mr Clinton also revealed there were pipeline plans to open a North West Automotive centre.

He said he believed the changes had revolutionised the way people thought about Blackburn College.

“One of the problems we had when I arrived was that we were regarded as the ‘tech’ down the road,” he said.

“We would like to think that we have, by and large, got over that.

“My wife was travelling to an event at the college and she was late so she had to have a taxi from Preston.

“When she asked them to take her to Blackburn College, the taxi driver said ‘do you mean Blackburn University?’ “We are not a university, but I think we have done quite a lot to improve the college’s image.

“People believe that the college is going in the right direction.”

Blackburn College can now offer undergraduate and some masters degree qualifications, which are awarded by Lancaster and Glamorgan Universities.

And with almost every item checked off his to-do list, Mr Clinton said it was now time to let somebody else have a go.

He said: “You can make the mistake of going on too long. The time to leave a job is when you don’t want to, not when you are desperate to.

“Then 15,000 students would suffer.

“I also wanted to leave to give myself time to do something different.

“That could be an interim job as a principal somewhere and if I could find a failing college for a year or two, that would be great. I have done everything I can do in my generation of being here.

“My wife also has breast cancer and I want to spend more time with her.

“I am going to miss working at Blackburn College very much. It will be a big wrench to leave.”

The college board of governors is now in the process of deciding what kind of person they would like to take over but most people agree that Ian Clinton will be a very tough act to follow.

The college has made phenomenal progress

Jack Straw, MP for Blackburn and corporation board member at Blackburn College, said: “Mr Clinton has been the best I have seen in a long line of very good principals. Under his leadership, the college has made phenomenal progress and among many other things, we now have a university centre of which we can all be proud.”

Coun Michael Lee, who is also finance officer at Blackburn College, said: “If you look back to what the college was when Mr Clinton arrived, what it is now and what he has been responsible for, it is fantastic. He has been the key driver and had the strategic view of working with other agencies. It has helped the town as a whole.”

Deputy police and crime commissioner and Blackburn College board member Ibrahim Master said: “I used to go to Blackburn College many years ago and since Mr Clinton has moved into the principal’s office, he has taken it to the next level. He has enhanced the opportunities available to the people of the area immensely.”

Sir Bill Taylor, chair of the corporation board at Blackburn College, said: “He will be a hard act to follow. He has been marvellous. We need somebody who can carry on with the baton. Things are going to move on and we need to allow some new ideas. When he does leave, he will be leaving with his head high and a fantastic legacy.”