THE Royal National College for the Blind shines like a beacon for Hereford in more ways than one.

It is the only college for the visually impaired in the country with Beacon status, is one of the biggest employers in the county and brings millions of pounds each year into the local economy.

However, it is not sitting back on its laurels and is set to play a major part in turning the international spotlight on to Herefordshire if the new principal, Christine Steadman, has her way.

Maintaining the high standards that have marked the college as the best of its type in the land, combined with delivering a £20 million project to build a student village and a sports and complementary therapy centre, mean there is no time for her to slowly play herself in.

"There is a lot to do and it's a huge challenge but it's very exciting," said Christine, who has been in teaching for more than 30 years, most recently with Ofsted, where she had a lead role in specialist education for adults.

"I wanted the challenge of getting back into teaching, working with a community and was very lucky to get this job in Hereford."

The planned sports and therapy complex is geared towards providing a facility for disabled athletes from this country and abroad ahead of the 2012 Olympic games. As such it will turn international eyes towards Hereford, where the college is also the base for the England blind football team.

Bringing off the project will be a major coup for the Blind College and a boost for Herefordshire, but it will not divert Christine and her team from their key role.

"We are here to promote independence and enable people with blindness and impaired vision to realise their potential and make a contribution to society," she said.

There are 200 students aged between 16 and 60 at the Royal National College for the Blind from all over the country as well as a small number from overseas.

An estimated thee per cent of the people in the UK have some degree of blindness but students at the college have the most profound problems, with sight impairment often combined with other problems.

"Some of our students have been blind from birth and others have lost their sight in later life because of injury, illness or a genetic problem."

Students study a range of academic and vocational qualifications including GCSEs, A Levels and BTECs. Most are residential and spend between eight weeks and three years at the college, depending on the course.

There are 250 full or part-time staff including teachers, counsellors, care workers and medical staff.

"A significant number of people who work here have some problem with their sight. It helps and enables them to have empathy with the students."

The college is international in outlook and is involved in a number of European research projects. It has some overseas students and a significant number from minority ethnic communities giving a cosmopolitan and culturally diverse mix.

Judging success cannot be based on any one thing, but in a country where 70% of visually impaired people are unemployed it is a telling statistic that 90% of students who leave the college go either into jobs or on to further education.

"We have a few that have gone on to be millionaires. That is not important because of the money, which we know is not everything, but it provides role models and shows what can be achieved."

The Royal National College for the Blind was established more than 100 years ago and has been a major part of the life of Hereford since 1979.

"We have a proud past and an exciting future," concluded Christine.