OVER the last 20 years, Accrington and Rossendale College has seen many changes, from its first computer in 1983, to d partnerships with students from China and Russia and multi-million pound investments in building and technology.

An inspection by the Further Education Funding Council graded many areas of college education provision as outstanding -- placing Accrington and Rossendale College among the top education centres in the country. Results of the inspection were made public this week, as principal Michael Austin travelled to Westminster to pick up a Chartermark on behalf of the college for its "excellent provision of public services." So what is the secret of success? JOANNE HAMPSON reports.

PRINCIPAL Michael Austin can remember vividly the day the first computer arrived at Accrington and Rossendale College. He said: "It was a BBC computer in 1983 and was an object of amazement. People would come in and look at it.

"At the same time they had a special word processor and students were timetabled once a week to go on it. Today we have more than 1,000 computers and every student has free access to the internet."

The high-tech boom is a sign of how the college has adapted and grown since it first opened its Sandy Lane site in 1960. Last year saw the celebration of 25 years of A-level provision and 10 years in the higher education programme, with almost 25,000 students attending courses in Accrington and Rawtenstall.

Mr Austin is rightly proud of the achievements since its last inspection.

"I think people so pleased that the hard work over the last four years has been recognised and the achievements of the students has been recognised," said Mr Austin, who joined the college from a background of languages in January 1981.

"We are now much closer to the ideal of a student centred organisation. When I came here 20 years ago things started in September and finished in June. In those days all students had timetables that were the same. Now if students need extra help, that help is available to them in a way it never was before."

The college has invested heavily in modern technology and millions have been spent on improvements at Sandy Lane, with £8 million ploughed into a new construction centre.

Developments in special needs, extra curriculum activities and student support systems have all helped to turn out students with GCSE pass rates above the national average Student surveys keep staff in touch with how students feel about college life and the quality of teaching is also reflected in the number of former teachers who have gone on to become principals in colleges in Nelson, Burnley and Bury.

Provision for students with learning difficulties was also graded highly by inspectors, which Mr Austin said was as a result of many changes over the last four years, including integration of those with learning difficulties or disabilities into mainstream college life and the curriculum as a whole. "Every student who comes here is assessed for their needs," said Mr Austin. "We have changed a lot over the last four years and to achieve a grade two in this section is very pleasing indeed."

So with such a glowing report, where does Accrington and Rossendale College go from here?

Mr Austin said: "There are some areas in the inspection where we got a grade two. Next time we want to get a grade one. We want to eliminate our weaknesses and work on our strengths using self analysis and positive criticism.

"I am sure we will continue to improve. The only thing that really matters here is student learning. All the financial systems, governing systems and improvements to buildings are here to make student learning better -- and the key of it all is what goes on in the classroom.

"When you are a local college you don't expect to something that by national standards is top of the tree.

"In East Lancashire we have a history of undervaluing ourselves, but here in Accrington we have one of the best colleges in the country."