It's not just the winning that counts for Selby College
"It was one of those rather unexpected pleasant plaudits. But the tables are not fundamentally important as we are looking for a sustained performance in other areas as well." On the other hand, he adds: "Being top has helped us to reinforce a message that we are good - it has forced some people to face up to the fact that we are successful."
Selby (seventh in this year's college table) is just over 10 years old. It encountered some local hostility when it was created from an old further-education college and a school under tertiary reorganisation, when it became "the local sixth form for this area", in the principal's words. "A fact we can't ignore is that students could go elsewhere - York or Pontefract - so we've got to be good."
The town is situated in a largely Conservative enclave of North Yorkshire. Not the well-heeled part of the county around Harrogate but one with the highest unemployment rate (15 per cent) - a region of flat agricultural landscape punctuated by power stations and pits. The 70 per cent staying-on rate is probably not unconnected with a lack of jobs, said Mr Stewart.
The college takes around 900 full-time students, doubling in numbers since it opened and up by a quarter from two years ago. Students come mainly from five feeder schools. Fortunately for the college, none has plans to develop sixth forms, as is happening elsewhere in the country. "That would be bad news for us - disastrous," said Mr Stewart, who intends to increase the intake by 25 per cent in three years, especially among adults, and improve community links as part of post-incorporation development.
Students are offered 23 subjects at A-level and a wide range of General National Vocational Qualifications, which are rapidly replacing Business and Technical Education Council courses. NVQ level 2 is available in several subjects including hairdressing and catering. Sixty per cent of leavers with A-levels or vocational qualifications go on to higher education. The attendance rate is a high 90 per cent.
Despite widespread publicity ("The first I knew about the results was when someone from the Daily Express phoned," said Mr Stewart) a college survey showed that local employers hadn't got the league-table message. Only five out of 29 had heard of Selby's achievement compared with nearly half the parents in the sample.
Mr Stewart, like many critics, regards league tables as a "crude indicator" because they fail to measure the value added by an institution to a student's experience. "Has the college done well because the feeder schools did well?" And they don't indicate other aspects of college life that are valuable to students: sporting and leisure opportunities, for example.
Reservations aside, why the success? A range of reasons, say senior staff. According to the principal: "Collaboration is the key to getting students on the right course from the beginning." Keith Brooker, assistant principal in charge of the curriculum, pointed to the joint efforts of the college students' support service and schools' career teachers to advise on options. Then an admissions officer gives advice, informing students of vocational qualifications as well as the academic route.
Selby's relatively small numbers (about 1,400 full-time equivalent) could be another factor. HM Inspectors have noted a correlation between size and standards. "Staff know about 90 per cent of the students, which contributes to a friendly atmosphere," he said.
The college plays an important intermediate role between school and university, providing self-motivated study backed up by staff support and a strong tutorial system.
The retention rate has been improved, especially in engineering, by the introduction of foundation-level GNVQs, said John Reather, head of student services.
"We are not complacent," said Mr Stewart. "The college motto, "A lifetime for learning", is an indication of its aim to attract more adults and meet the needs of local industry to help regenerate the economy in partnership with North Yorkshire Training and Enterprise Council. Access courses, a "Gateway Programme" providing taster courses for unemployed people and a cr che, are underpinning this development, which Mr Stewart hopes will be as successful as the exam results.