The college was a natural place to turn. "We say to business, what can we do for you, and what can you do for us? It's a partnership," said Philip Malkin, the business links manager of the college.
Four years ago, Queen Elizabeth college had 800 pupils, aged 16-18, taking only academic courses, GCSEs and A-levels. Now it has 1,500 students of all ages (the oldest is 86), and it has changed beyond recognition.
It still teaches GCSE and A-level, but also offers general national vocational qualifications in health and social care, leisure and tourism, business and media studies, and three more are on the way. Evening classes are held in such subjects as book-keeping, sign language, computerised accounting and first aid.
Prior to incorporation, it had few links with business. But independence gave the college the freedom to reach out to the local business community.
It established LinkQuest, a scheme to foster relations with local businesses that offers them the use of college facilities and discussion of company training needs. In return, the close contact helps the college find work-experience placements for its students, vital during the expansion of its vocational programme.
Mr Malkin came from the gas industry. "This was my opportunity to give something back," he said. "I like to think I bring a business-like thinking to the college."
The college also has 125 business associates, who represent a wide variety of the commercial and industrial businesses in the area. One is the Darlington Building Society, which has a three-year sponsorship deal with the college.
The building society's Clive Wrigley said: "It is important for us to have links with the local community. The students are producing a calendar for us and we recently gave them a presentation on work skills. The college is also looking at our staff information-technology training needs.We have a very good relationship with the college and we value it."
Another satisfied customer is Bruce Elliott of Darlington Memorial Hospital. It pays to use classrooms outside term-time when its own facilities are stretched.
"Our medical staff must always be updating their professional knowledge," he said. "They must be aware of the information available worldwide. And so I am very interested in using the college for that. It saves us the risk of using a Web site in our own right. It gives us the chance to try it out here." In return, the hospital will take some GNVQ placements.
Mr Malkin said: "There is a great deal of competition for good quality placements. You only need two or three to mess it all up. So we put a lot of preparation in beforehand and we ensure we satisfy the employer."
Lindsey Russell got a placement in a hotel. "I got a lot of valuable experience and by the end of the week they let me run the reception on my own. They even offered me a job." But she decided to continue with her education.