Runshaw College in Leyland, Lancashire, has become the first post-16 educational establishment to win the prestigious European Quality Award for its management structures.
Bernard O'Connell, Runshaw's principal, said it is "unique for a college to even be considered for this award, yet alone win it". He was due to accept the award yesterday from the President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, at a ceremony in Helsinki.
The achievement represents the apogee of a remarkable turnaround in the way the college has been managed in recent years.
A decade ago, Mr O'Connell says, the college was struggling under complex and jargon-ridden management approaches and seemed to be undergoing "death by 1,000 initiatives".
Now it is a beacon college that boasts seven grade 1s in its last inspection - "the best set of inspection grades of any further education college in the last four-year inspection cycle".
It has doubled in size in the past 10 years, with 3,200 full-time students aged 16-19 and 12,000 adult students. It is in the top 10 colleges in terms of both student achievement and retention and scores highly in student and staff satisfaction.
It achieved its success by making a policy decision to ban all business jargon and by adopting a management style that was based on supporting staff and providing careful training.
Senior managers, especially the principal, are required to talk constantly about students, teaching and learning, and values.
Mr O'Connell said that when colleges were freed from local authority control in 1993 they were informed that they would have to earn the income needed to pay staff wages and overheads by attracting students in competition with other colleges.
At the same time, a massive productivity drive began which amounted to a 30 per cent cut in funds over five years. It required new contracts for staff in which teachers lost holidays without compensation.
He added: "It seemed to most principals that colleges had been given the freedom to do the impossible, that they had to attract more students and to improve quality with fewer resources and a demoralised workforce.
"Many colleges chose to pursue autocratic and adversarial macho-management styles in which poor communication and little or no employee consultation became commonplace.
"We made the classic mistake in focusing on systems, structures and strategy, the three "hard" Ss. In doing so we neglected the four "soft" Ss - shared values, staff morale, skills and style. None of our efforts made any real difference. If anything we went backwards.
"We employed a consultant to act as our guide. The only trouble was that we feel he led us up a blind alley, wasting huge amounts of money, time, energy and enthusiasm."
He said the turning point came when a "white knight" rode to the rescue. It was Leyland Trucks and its chief executive, John Oliver, which had made radical improvements in management style while showing a significant increase in profits.
They achieved this by adopting the excellence model established by the European Foundation for Quality Management. In 1989, 14 of Europe's most successful companies came together to form EFQM and they established the model in 1991.
The model represented their collective view of what were "best practice" businesslike principles, concepts and approaches, building on similar developments in Japan and the US.
Leyland Trucks was using the model with great success and in 1995 Runshaw took it on as the basis of its management system.
Mr O'Connell said: "Using the same consultant as Leyland Trucks, we redefined our student culture and identified what kind of staff we needed to deliver this culture.
"Then we decided what kind of leadership was needed to support, train and manage our staff. The result was swift and impressive."
"What we called The New Beginning was launched in 1996, a whole new approach to our management of students.
"It demanded enormous commitment and enthusiasm from staff to make it work, so it would not have been possible without a change in staff morale and in staff commitment."
"We recognised that most staff are inspired by values that focus on students or teaching and learning, or a mission that asserts that by changing people's lives what we do is incredibly worthwhile."
Now Runshaw has joined the ranks of public-sector bodies such as the Inland Revenue and the Post Office as winners of the EQA award.
"So why hasn't every college adopted the excellence model?" Mr O'Connell asks. "I don't know - it beats me!
"If there was only one thing that the Learning and Skills Council could do to raise standards in FE it should be to task the Leadership College to disseminate the model to all colleges."