Pauline Waterhouse has just been hailed by business chiefs as the best supporter of business and enterprise in Blackpool.
She stands down as principal and chief executive of Blackpool and The Fylde College this week after nine years of championing regeneration through education.
Pauline is in a class of her own. Under her lead – although she gives full credit to her team – the college has gone from strength to strength even after the setback of missing out on a new central campus.
Under her leadership it has won University Centre status, five national beacon awards including for innovation and development, is one of the country’s most influential regional colleges, and third largest college provider of higher education courses nationally.
Each further education area now has a higher education path. Skills gaps are plugged locally. Blackpool may have lost a supercasino but gained a regional gaming academy – a gamble which has paid off.
Across the diverse disciplines students stick at their studies and have more chance of getting proper jobs.
Blackpool Build Up has become a one stop shop for construction contractors looking for local workers – now part of the clauses in contracts.
The college also runs an award winning project control foundation degree programme with BAE Systems
Effectively a small town within a town (several towns) in its own right the college is one of the largest employers locally, a £52m organisation with 1,300 staff.
Higher education student numbers have trebled, there are 50 per cent more 16-18 year-olds there too.
Pauline is passionate about education. Not just as a tool to learn and earn but achieve inner peace and fulfil potential.
She learned that the hard way. Her parents left school at 14 in spite of being bright enough to go further. They were determined to give their two daughters a brighter future.
Her dad was the son of Italian immigrants who settled near Pontefract, a mining district fallen on hard times.
“My father had a very difficult and challenging life. He felt the denial of his opportunities keenly.
“My mother was – is – a Londoner. Her background was difficult in a different way. Her mother was in service, as many were.
“My sister and I were brought up to value education highly and see it as a passport to a better life.
“As a consequence when I went into teaching I saw it as a way of contributing to transforming life opportunities of young people and adults.
“I still do. So does my sister. She runs a college in Nigeria, a far more difficult part of the world in which to operate. She lives in the north, where there is a lot of trouble and strife. I’ve got the easier option.”
Not that it’s a soft option. Pauline won her OBE in 2010 for Services to Education the hard way. The same year central government funding was pulled on plans for a new campus off Rigby Road.
Pauline kept calm and carried on. “Did we have a Plan B? Oh yes.”
That very year she rolled out a 10-year phased accommodation strategy which began with the transformation of Fleetwood Nautical Campus. “I am enormously proud of that. It’s like a brand new college, and serves a local, national and international community.”
Bispham Campus , which had a £4m refurb in 2004 , is getting a whole new lease of life as the born-again main base.
“We looked at all the benefits of staying here. It would have been nice to have a brand new college in the centre of Blackpool but there are very real advantages here. It’s a green area, a pleasant residential area, students feel safe here.
“We have plans to build an advanced technology centre too.”
In 2009 it won University Centre status, and spent £10m on the central Blackpool campus and a new central hub. A school of creative arts has since become a UK leader.
Pauline moved into management in the mid-1980s. She juggled it with teaching English – her first love.
“ Literature and drama are my great passion. It’s fantastic to introduce young people to a love of literature, to awaken that is very special indeed.
“I didn’t want to lose contact with students and knowledge of what made their experience vibrant and fulfilling.”
Her favourite writers include Maya Angelou, James Baldwin “and a lot of the writers associated with the Black movement in America.” She likes writers “with resonance” and is equally at home teaching a love of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen as with 20th and 21st century authors.
“What Shakespeare wrote is as relevant and current to our lives in the 21st century as it was in the 16th century. He understood the human psyche. The human psyche hasn’t changed.”
In Leeds she introduced secondary schools to vocational education. Later she helped rationalise secondary school placements in Leeds.
“There were a lot of surplus places in secondary schools as there are today. It was sensitive – as it is today. The issues are precisely the same.
“I am very sympathetic to that because schools are at the heart of their social communities and parents and locals feel strongly about not wanting to see them closed or places removed.
“But the funding purse is reducing. It’s surprising how much it takes to maintain school places not actually used.
“ We only have eight secondary schools in this unitary authority so have a very strong sense of partnership.
“We can build on that for closer collaboration, clusters working together to give children the best educational opportunities.
“We have significant deprivation, high levels of transience, some schools with high proportions of pupils on free school meals . If we all come together we can strengthen the community.
“Teachers have a huge administrative burden and are open to criticism from government ministers who don’t necessarily understand the challenges – but I still feel the benefits, rewards, outweigh the challenges.
“I don’t regret a day of it.”
Pauline plans to spend more time with her family, enjoy a few more walking holidays, particularly of her beloved Yorkshire Dales, and has a special trip to India, the Golden Triangle, to come later this year.
But she’s not retiring. Not yet. “There’s too much to do,” she admits. “I am retiring from this role but I am going to be doing other things.
“I will still be involved with education.
“I’m going on the board of a large educational charity. I am also going on the board of a multi-academy trust working nationally.
“And there are other things I have been approached about – under discussion.
“It’s all about living and learning.”