Head is suspended at 'too Catholic' college as over-16s fight for right to shun faith activities. Graeme Paton reports
A Catholic sixth-form college principal who invited a radical pro-life campaigner from the US to lecture students and excluded teenagers for skipping Mass has been suspended.
The local council has now launched an investigation into St Luke's college in Bexley, south London, following a revolt by students who accused it of being "more concerned about religion than education" and criticism of teaching standards by Ofsted.
It brings to a head a troubled few months for the college, only formed last year following the closure of two school sixth forms.
Earlier this year more than 100 teenagers signed a petition protesting at a decision by Maria Williams, the principal, to invite Barbara McGuigan, an American evangelist, to lecture students about Christian family values.
It is claimed students were forced to attend a series of talks by Ms McGuigan - founder of Catholic charity, Voice of Virtue International - about abortion, sex outside marriage and homosexuality.
One 18-year-old girl, who has just finished exams at the college, told The TES: "It was just disturbing and went too far. We were shown pictures of foetuses aborted after 12 and 20 weeks - it was met with disgust. Some people were crying and walking out."
Students also complained after taking part in a procession, in which they were asked to carry a statue of the Virgin Mary around the college while singing hymns.
Last month Mrs Williams excluded 17 students for a day after they refused to go to mass and then called them into college for a "re-entry"
An 18-year-old boy, who was among those suspended, said: "I don't think people should be forced to go to Mass. A small group of us decided to walk through the front gates but were stopped and suspended the next day."
Campaigners said the punishment raised the question of whether over-16s should have to attend religious ceremonies. Collective worship is compulsory at St Luke's and all other state schools and sixth-form colleges.
This week Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, confirmed that the Government has no plans to relax the laws on compulsory worship and, although parents have the power to pull children out, that right will not be extended to pupils themselves.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: "Legal advice we have indicates that the inability in law of older pupils to withdraw themselves from collective worship contravenes their rights under the Human Rights Act."
Mrs Williams told the local press students at St Luke's had "signed up" to attending Mass, one of only two compulsory acts of worship a term, and had been suspended for being "openly defiant".
But last month Mrs Williams herself was suspended on full pay by the college's governors after an inspection by Ofsted found standards at the college to be "inadequate", and criticised teaching. It has now been given a "notice to improve" after inspectors judged it to be "performing significantly less well than it could be reasonably expected to".
Staff also passed a vote of no confidence in the principal.
In a statement, Father Tim Finigan, chair of governors, denied accusations by students that the college is "too Catholic".
"There are many committed Catholic staff at the college and they support the Catholic life of the college," he said. "Non-Catholic staff have also been actively involved in its pastoral and spiritual life."
Mrs Williams was unavailable for comment.