Business Interview: Marcus Clinton, principal of Northumberland College

Marcus Clinton's role as principal at Northumberland College is seeing him at the centre of efforts to plug the county’s skills gap. And he's opened a zoo, as Graeme Whitfield finds out

Northumberland College Principal Marcus Clinton
Northumberland College Principal Marcus Clinton

There aren’t many people whose CV can include the words: “I opened a zoo.”

Marcus Clinton, principal of Northumberland College, can claim that, however, and is the reason why there are wallabies, emus, meerkats and snakes – to name just a few – in the Northumberland countryside.

The zoological gardens, as Mr Clinton prefers to call them (fearful that visitors might arrive and demand to see a giraffe, which he doesn’t have) are on the site of Kirkley Hall, an agricultural college which has been part of the wider Northumberland College since 1999.

But when Mr Clinton arrived there in 2010 as vice-principal in charge of the Kirkley Hall site, he found an institution that was far from healthy.

With around 400 students, it was, he said, “not viable”, while the wider college had been rated only as “satisfactory” by Ofsted and a proposed merger with Newcastle College was abandoned at the last moment.

“There was a real job to do,” he said. “The place was looking very tired, it was lacking energy and drive, really lacking the land based leadership, someone having expertise in those industries and seeing the potential to drive it forward.

“When I arrived in 2010, it was quite a shock to realise: ‘My God, the college is in quite a serious position’. Part of that was identifying the need to get this place going, which was why my post was created.

“I joined the college’s senior team so although I was based at Kirkley I was part of the college’s senior group and got an insight into the wider college. Clearly there was a pretty systemic financial issues and lots of problems to be sorted, so the first two years or so were very interesting.

“The college looked at various options around merger and other partnership models but things began to improve. We managed to get control of the cost base, began to see some growth. The quality side of things was improved and that came to fruition in fantastic Ofsted inspection in January 2013 where we received good grades throughout.

“It was a very strong report and we’ve had some of the highest success rates in the sector for the last few years. There’s been a real turnaround in every sense really.”

Northumberland College Principal Marcus Clinton
Northumberland College Principal Marcus Clinton

Part of that turnaround involved wallabies, emus, meerkats and snakes, for the college’s zoo was an attempt both to introduce a facility where animal care students could learn in a real-life environment, but also to get Kirkley back in the public consciousness in Northumberland.

“When I arrived I thought the college wasn’t exploring all the potential opportunities and wasn’t seeking growth. What was good was the basic expertise of the staff and the fact that the campus had wonderful potential,” Mr Clinton said.

“It was a case of saying, right, where can we get that growth to give us some financial stability, what can we offer that we aren’t offering, how can we better promote what we are good at?

“The main strategy was to get the place back on the map again. People felt that Kirkley had closed or just did weddings. The college side of it was getting lost a bit - it had lost its identity.

“So one of the big strategies was to open the zoological gardens to really get people to access the whole site and that really has has proved to be a fantastic success. We’re well over 100,000 visitors, we get hundreds of school visits and that’s really re-engaged Kirkley with the rural population.

“The beauty of the zoo and running things like that – we re-started the countryside festival, the Christmas fair: it’s a much more expansive events programme - that just got the community coming onto the site, meeting us, seeing what we were doing. We could promote all our new courses and make them aware of the fantastic opportunities that were here for youngsters.

“And that lots of the sectors we work in have great routes to jobs. They really do need people.

“So we were saying: ‘Look, you can come here, have a great experience and there’s a strong route to a job’. The only way we could do that was get people on site. We needed to get people to Kirkley to see it and touch it, feel it see what’s going on.”

After four years as vice-principal, Mr Clinton was appointed to the college’s top job at the end of last year to succeed Stuart Cutforth.

In his new job, he now divides his week between Kirkley and its main Ashington campus (the college also has sites in Hexham, Berwick and Blyth), which gives him experience of the uniquely two-sided nature of both Northumberland and its college.

“It’s a difficult county to serve because of its size,” he said. “It hasn’t got a huge population and most of it lives in the south east.

“You’ve got two very distinct economics. You’ve got the south east corner feeding into the Ashington campus and you’ve Kirkley serving the massive rural place with a very specialist offering to that community. Each campus is very distinct in their character and its markets.”

Having turned around the problems at Kirkley - the 400 students he inherited in 2010 is now over 900 and a number of new courses have been added in rural industries - recent months have seen advances in the more urban part of the county too.

A £2.5m grant will set up a cutting edge Stem centre at the Ashington campus while there is also a wind-energy centre at Blyth which has seen excellent success in getting students into jobs in the renewable energy sector.

“The challenge we have is making sure that the curriculum is the right one and we’ve got the subjects that employers want,” he said, “to secure that growth and make people aware of what a great college they’ve got.

“I think that sometimes gets a bit lost. Ashington does have an old main building which was the mining college. We’ve gone to a great deal of effort to make that building as comfortable and modern as we can, as well as all the new buildings at the back of the campus. We know we’ve got good teaching and high success rates, we’re doing lots of exciting things. It’s just there’s a big challenge in that there’s a need to get the story out there and say to the communities that we serve that they’ve got a great college.

“The central challenge for any college is delivering what employers want. Engaging with employers, delivering what they want and ultimately increasing the chances of our students going into jobs, which is really what we should be about. The increasing measurement of success is not about whether you’ve passed your course but whether you’ve got a job.

“What increasingly colleges are asked to demonstrate is that you’re putting into the students those employability skills so that they are far better prepared for work. That’s where the real work environments come in, like the salon, the restaurant, the zoo. We’ve got floristry students going to real weddings – they’re going to bride’s houses at the crack of dawn, they can’t get it wrong.

“When I talk to employers it’s not always so much about their technical skills, it’s about their attitude and aptitude for work. That what colleges more and more will need to make sure we’re developing, getting that rigour into students to make sure they’re more work ready. We’re putting a lot more energy into that.”

Northumberland College Principal Marcus Clinton
Northumberland College Principal Marcus Clinton

Mr Clinton hopes the entrepreneurial drive he brought to Kirkley, and latterly to the wider college, will rub off on students and staff in what is a county still well below national averages for its GVA.

New retail units at the two college sites will see students given the chance to set up their own businesses and a small business hub will be set up in Kirley to cement the site’s place at the heart of the rural community.

He said: “We’ve got these jobs in emerging technologies, where employers are idenfifying difficulties in recruiting. It’s our responsibility to be aware of that and train people for these opportunities.”

Monday Interview Q&A

What car do you drive?
Nissan Navarra

What’s your favourite restaurant?
We enjoy going to Frankie and Bennies with our six-year-old son Freddie

Who or what makes you laugh?
Most things, I was and am a big fan of Only Fools and Horses, I can usually see the humorous side of most things though

What’s your favourite book?
Wind in the Willows was a big childhood favourite so will go with that

What was the last album you bought?
Chris de Burgh – Hands of Man

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Lighthouse Keeper or Novelist – ideally both combined

What’s your greatest fear?
My decisions can impact on lots of people, worrying that I get it right and keep the show on the road!

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
If you see an opportunity, don’t be afraid to go for it - never look back with regret

And the worst?
You can’t do that – things will never change

What’s your poison?
Most forms of Cider, especially Kopparberg

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
I read whatever is available, usually the Mail or Countryside/Coastal/Travel Journals

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
I think it was for about £40 on the old YTS scheme and was for mucking out horses

How do you keep fit?
I enjoy coastal walks and climbing up to my office if the lift is not working

What’s your most irritating habit?
Probably falling asleep when watching TV and films

What’s your biggest extravagance?
We enjoy going to live concerts and the theatre when we can

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
I have always admired Horatio Nelson, he was a leader, worked hard, was fair, stood up for and looked after those who served him and was not afraid to make his vision a reality by his actions

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Horatio Nelson, Chris de Burgh, Alexander Kent, Harvey Smith

How would you like to be remembered?
He worked hard to make a difference

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