BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
A CATHOLIC sixth-form college in Kent is under investigation after its principal was suspended for allegedly putting religion before academic standards.
St Luke's College in Sidcup has suffered from disappointing results since its opening in December 2004. According to local news reports headmistress Maria Williams is on paid leave after her staff declared a vote of no confidence in her ability to run the school.
St Luke's first Ofsted report, which is yet to be published, will describe the college as "inadequate". A second internal report, conunissioned by the local education authority, has highlighted poor attendance and punctuality, a lack of clear policy, poor accommodation and equipment.
Inspectors are also said to have judged the college to be "performing significantly less well" than expected. The crisis has led governots at St Luke's to call for an independent investigation into the school's leadership and management.
The college was set up to provide a sixth form for pupils from St Catherine's and St Columba's and St Mary and St Joseph's schools, all within the Southwark archdiocese.
At the opening ceremony Ms Williams praised the high standard of facilities which she said provided an exciting opportunity for staff and pupils. But the last 18 months have seen a deterioration in the relationship between the headteacher and the staff, resulting in the governors' decision to order an independent inquiry.
Some pupils claim that Ms Williams suspended them for not attending Mass and say that lessons were cut short in favour of religious activities — both allegations disputed by the school.
Fr Tim Finigan, chairman of the board of governors, confirmed that the headteacher was on paid leave. However he assured parents and pupils that the problems would be resolved.
In a written statement he acknowledged that the college had recently been visited by Ofsted inspectors and that a formal "notice to improve" would be issued.
"I have every confidence in the staff who are well equipped to bring about a speedy improvement so that the college can move forward in the weeks and months ahead and all our students can achieve their full potential," he wrote.
"We all want to solve the present problems and make St Luke's the vibrant and successful Catholic college that we know it can be. I am grateful to the local authority for their timely and effective assistance."
But some parents have voiced concerns that Ms Williams has been targeted for her insistence on the school maintaining a distinctive Catholic ethos.
Her supporters said much of the criticism had come from News Shopper, a local free newspaper, and that the controversy had been fuelled by a small number of disaffected students.
Supporters of Ms Williams have launched a campaign on the intemet.