Interim principal joins Highbury College following DfE intervention

A college embroiled in an expenses scandal has appointed an experienced FE leader as its interim principal.

Penny Wycherley (pictured) will take over Stella Mbubaegbu’s responsibilities as principal at Highbury College from today after the latter was suspended last month.

It follows intervention from the FE Commissioner, who recently moved Highbury into “supervised college status”.

Wycherley said: “It’s an exciting time for the Highbury College Portsmouth with so many opportunities for us to serve and develop.

“Although there is much publicity about the challenges facing staff in further education colleges like Highbury College, those staff do amazing work in educating and training millions of young people and adults.”

Wycherley was formerly principal of Waltham Forest College until she retired in March 2018, but then took over the top job at City College Plymouth last November when its leader stood down.

Since 2006, she has helped turnaround South Kent College and Great Yarmouth College – the latter of which moved from an Ofsted grade four to a grade two college.

She originally retired in 2014, but continued to specialise as an interim principal at Waltham Forest College. She moved the college’s Ofsted grade up from a three to a two.

At the same time as Mbubaegbu was suspended, Highbury’s chair Tim Mason announced he would also be stepping down, and said he would be replaced by a national leader of governance (NLG).

FE Week understands the college is still in the recruitment process for this role.

The FE commissioner was sent into Highbury by Department for Education minister Lord Agnew, who said he was “deeply concerned” after FE Week revealed that its principal had claimed expenses of £150,000 over four years, following a year-long freedom of information battle.

Included in the spending were numerous first-class flights, stays in five-star hotels, travel in luxury cars, a £350 bill – including a £45 lobster and nearly £100 on cocktails – at a Michelin-starred restaurant and a £434 pair of designer headphones.

In October Mbubaegbu, who was awarded a CBE in the 2008 New Year honours for services to further education, announced her intention to retire from Highbury in the summer next year.

The action at Highbury also comes a month after FE Week revealed that the college applied to the Education and Skills Funding Agency for up to £5 million to replace “non-compliant” panelling which, according to the architects, “failed” a safety test.

The cladding at the halls of residence for students under the age of 18 is the same type as that used on Grenfell Tower in west London which caught fire in June 2017.

Highbury is also locked in a legal battle with a state in Nigeria and this newspaper last month revealed it has substantially lowered its expectations of recovering the £1.4 million it claims to be owed. Leaders believe they now have a “medium opportunity” of recouping just £872,000.

The college recorded a £2.48 million deficit in its 2017/18 accounts. Leaders axed its sixth form and had to make staff redundant this year owing to financial pressures.

Highbury’s Ofsted grade dropped from ‘outstanding’ to ‘requires improvement’ in June 2018.

Wycherley said staff at Highbury College are “working hard” to ensure that the students “continue to have a positive experience and to lay the foundations for their future”.

“Our staff are proud to make a difference to individuals and to the communities we serve,” she added. “I welcome this opportunity to work with them doing just this.”