A crisis-hit college has agreed to merge with a neighbouring sixth form college as it continues its road to recovery.

Highbury College, which has been led by interim leadership since its principal quit last year following an expenses scandal and government intervention, is set to amalgamate with Portsmouth College following an FE Commissioner-led structure and prospects appraisal.

In a joint statement, the colleges said that subject to ministerial approval, plans will move to the next stage of consultation with stakeholders including current staff, students, parents, local employers, universities and secondary schools.

A date for completion of the merger has not been set and while the new-look leadership of the group is not yet known, it would likely involve Highbury’s interim principal Penny Wycherley stepping down.

Wycherley, who took over from former principal Stella Mbubaegbu in December 2019, is currently contracted to continue leading Highbury until August 2021.

Commenting on the potential merger, Wycherley said: “We are delighted to be developing our partnership with Portsmouth College and moving to combining further our strengths.

“The next stage includes all the detailed checks and discussions that are necessary in bringing together two organisations who are so important to the City.”

New chair of Highbury, Paul Quigley, added that the move is an “opportunity to build a stronger, more sustainable college”.

Quigley became the college’s permanent chair earlier this month, replacing ex-chief executive of the Association of Colleges Martin Doel who was also parachuted into help the college last December.

Highbury’s former chair Tim Mason and principal Mbubaegbu stepped down after FE Week revealed how £150,000 was spent on Mbubaegbu’s corporate college card in four years, including extravagant items such as numerous first-class flights, stays in five-star hotels, a boozy lobster dinner and a £434 pair of designer headphones.

Around the same time the college had to make redundancies, scrap its A-level provision and dropped from Ofsted ‘outstanding’ to ‘requires improvement’. Highbury has also been stuck in a legal battle with a Nigerian state following a failed technical education project.

Just a month after Doel and Wycherley took over a Highbury, the pair discovered the college was running out of cash and had to secure a £1.5 million emergency bailout to keep it running.

Nick Wynne, chair of Portsmouth College, said the merger with Highbury is a “wonderful opportunity to bring together two great complementary colleges that will enhance the quality and choice of courses for the learners in and around our city”.

Simon Barrable, principal at Portsmouth College, added: “These are inspiring times for post-16 education and training in Portsmouth and we now have the chance to realise a ‘one city, one college’ vision.”

As revealed by FE Week earlier this month, Highbury is paying back its government bailout and has made its first staff pay award in years after receiving a £3.5 million exit dividend from an international venture in Saudi Arabia.

Portsmouth College is currently rated ‘good’ by Ofsted and posted a surplus of £69,000 in its latest accounts for the year-ended 31 July 2019.

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