Highbury College tumbles two grades from ‘outstanding’

Highbury College has dropped two grades from ‘outstanding’ in an Ofsted report that brands its teaching “uninspiring” and raises concern over low attendance.

The verdict was a serious blow to a heavily criticised leadership team led by Stella Mbubaegbu (pictured above), who maintains that the college has “already embarked on our journey back to ‘outstanding’”.

In addition to her role as principal of the Portsmouth provider, she is also a director of several high-profile FE bodies: Collab Group and the notorious Gazelle Colleges Group.

Ofsted rated the college ‘requires improvement’ overall, in a report that gives grade threes in headline fields including effectiveness of leadership and management, quality of teaching, learning and assessment, 16-to-19 study programmes, and apprenticeships.

It was ‘outstanding’ when Ofsted last inspected in 2011.

“Leaders and governors have been slow to reverse the college’s decline in performance,” the new report warned.

Leaders’ and managers’ “evaluation of the quality of provision, particularly teaching, learning and assessment” is “overoptimistic”, though governors were recognised for having a “good oversight” of most areas of the college.

Inspectors warned that “overall performance has declined and they have not been effective in challenging and supporting senior leaders to stem this decline”.

“Too much teaching is uninspiring and attendance at most lessons is low.”

Too few teachers and assessors “encourage students on study programmes and apprentices to gain the skills and knowledge they need to achieve well”.

The report recognised that the college, which taught almost 7,000 learners last year, was “undergoing a period of some turbulence” at the time of the inspection.

“Leaders were tackling significant financial challenges but had yet to reverse the decline in performance of the past few years,” it said.

The college declined to comment on its current financial position, but according to the 2016/17 ESFA accounts, it had a deficit of £1,663,190.

Ms Mbubaegbu preferred to focus on the more positive elements of the report.

“We are enormously proud of our students and pleased that Ofsted recognises their motivation, work-related skills and their enjoyment of learning,” she said.

“The improvements outlined in the report are well underway and we have already embarked on our journey back to ‘outstanding’. Our focus will remain on enabling all our students to succeed.”

Inspectors did recognise that “students and apprentices are well behaved, confident and respectful, and a strong culture of safety permeates the college”.

Managers “maintain a strong focus on promoting equality of opportunity and creating a culture that welcomes diversity”, resulting in a “respectful and harmonious college community”.

But efforts to improve the quality of teaching “have had limited success”.

Ms Mbubaegbu is listed as a director of Gazelle Colleges Group, which is still active according to Companies House.

The group, registered at Highbury College Portsmouth, was subject to an FE Week investigation in 2014 which revealed how the five founding member colleges had each paid more than £530,000 to the group since it was launched.

But it had drastically scaled down its operations by January last year, when we reported that its membership numbers had fallen from 23 colleges to six.

Despite its problems, the college still describes itself on its website as “a key member” of Gazelle.