Inspiration from above

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Faith-based sixth-form colleges say their spiritual focus helps to raise academic achievement. Simon Midgley reports

Two faith-based comprehensives - one Muslim and the other Sikh - have just been judged the best schools in England for adding value to children's education.

This news comes as no surprise to principals of some of England's faith-based sixth-form colleges, all 15 of which are Roman Catholic. Nor are they fazed by chief inspector David Bell's claim that many faith schools - notably Islamic ones - foster in students "little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations in British society".

Last year, 11 faith-based FE colleges were judged "excellent" by a Learning and Skills Council performance review. Of the 73 colleges in England judged excellent, 15 per cent were Roman Catholic.

What is more remarkable is that the 16-19 colleges are non-selective and often draw their students from deprived inner-city areas.

As well as turning out students with good A-levels, the colleges work hard to help those studying for GCSEs and equivalent level 1 qualifications.

So just how does being a faith-based institution make such a difference to achievement? Paul O'Shea, principal of St Charles Catholic sixth-form college in west London, said: "The religious identity of an institution definitely contributes to its success in secular terms: good qualification outcomes and good inspection reports."

He believes that values which are said to be intrinsic to Christianity and other faiths - notably openness, honesty, cheerfulness and tolerance - support the development of strong working relationships and a vibrant team spirit among staff.

"If you have lots of people working together in pursuit of common goals, then your organisation is likely to be successful."

Mr O'Shea said it also resulted in a sense of community and collegiality.

In faith-based institutions, he said, there is also an ambition that runs beyond academic qualifications. Such colleges are also committed to developing their students' spiritual and moral sides as well as fostering them academically and personally.

"If you can get your 16 to 19 year olds to pray with you, it is a bit easier to get the essay in at the end of the week," he said. "You are appealing to other parts of them as people, not just to their identity as students with learning goals."

Concern for the whole person made people feel more valued and more able to respond to subsequent academic demands. Caring for the whole individual resulted in strong pastoral and student support systems, he added.

Anthony Andrews, the chairman of the Association of Catholic Sixth Form Colleges and principal of Xaverian college in Manchester, says that he fundamentally believes that being a faith-based college does make a difference to student achievement.

"There is a shared, gospel-based value system that permeates everything this college does - our last Ofsted inspection actually referred to this.

We talk a lot about our Xaverian community, shared purpose and values."

Bernie Borland, the principal of St Francis Xavier college in south-west London, said his college saw itself as a community with a shared set of beliefs and values. These qualities, he believed, underpinned student and staff behaviour and led to improved performance. Any community that can identify things that they have in common, he added, was more likely to be successful than one that is incoherent and fractured.

"It does help if you have shared beliefs, or at the very least you have people saying that they care and they want to be part of something. What you need to do is establish a school culture, identity and a sense that young people are going somewhere."

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