Raising expectations at St John Rigby College

Peter McGhee in profile

When Peter McGhee is asked to explain the success story that is St John Rigby College in Wigan, he states the first of the college’s core principles for teaching and learning: ‘There is no ceiling to achievement.’

As a demonstration of how this principle is supported by all teaching and support staff, he shares three images of the college’s sports hall, all taken on the same day, and each involving a different activity which required reorganising the lay-out of the hall. It is an example, he says, of a place where things get done. ‘There is very much an attitude of “how do we make this happen?” rather than a starting point of “that´s not possible”.’

It is a philosophy that has borne fruit since his arrival as principal in 2010. Last year the college was judged ‘outstanding’ in every category by Ofsted’s inspectors. It was named the ‘Most Inspirational 16-18 Education provider’ in last November’s Educate Awards. ‘We’d just become the highest-performing Catholic sixth-form college in the country for A Level progress,’ explains Peter, who was himself the recipient of the Secondary Headteacher of the Year prize at the Archdiocese of Liverpool school awards in May.

For the 53-year-old, the raising of expectations has been key to the improved performance of the A Level students at a college catering for some 1,400 young people. ‘We identified that we had a lower percentage of highly qualified students in terms of GCSE grades than is the norm within sixth-form colleges and we challenged ourselves whether that should influence our expectations,’ he says. ‘We came together as a team and agreed we should not adjust our expectations of students but provide them with the framework to excel, so they could meet and go beyond those benchmarks.’

Aspiration is not just about exam results. An Elective Programme established at St John Rigby enables pupils to give thought to their future careers. ‘Time at college isn’t just about gaining qualifications but also thinking about their next steps,’ Peter continues. ‘We’ve got an extensive Elective Programme where students can follow a course for being a future engineer, or a future lawyer or an aspiring artist or journalist or entrepreneur, or even a future leader. Hopefully there’s something there to engage everybody and assist them in meeting their goals and aspirations.’

For the 53-year-old, his own road travelled has included a spell as senior manager at Loreto Sixth Form College in Hulme, where he was part of a team who established ‘a post-16 Catholic outreach provision in the north of Manchester because all of the Catholic sixth-form provision was on the south side of the city.’ This involved working with an FE college – now Manchester College – to establish sixth-form teaching on the site.  ‘They opened a new sixth-form centre in Ardwick in Manchester. It felt like a vocation for me to lead this development and I was fortunate to be appointed as Head of Centre.’ From there, he spent time as deputy principal at Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College.

Today the Manchester City-supporting father of three passes on his experience as a national leader of further education, a source of advice and support to other colleges in a scheme established by the Department for Education. Further evidence, if it were needed, that in Mr McGhee, St John Rigby College is in the safest of hands.