Stella is the shining star of Portsmouth

11th January 2008 at 00:00

When Stella Mbubaegbu left teaching in schools to take up a college post, she had no plans to rise to the top. But if her success has been incidental, it is impressive all the same.

She was the first black female college principal and now she has been made a CBE in the Queen's New Year honours.

"I tend to say to people that I have fallen into every job in my career," says Mrs Mbubaegbu.

"The driving motivation for me in any job is to be excellent, to be the best that I can be. That's what drives me. How can I make a difference?

"That in itself created the opportunity for the next job and the next move. It's always been other people who've said, `Have you seen this, have you thought about this job?'"

Six years after she took over as principal of Highbury College in Portsmouth, inspectors said the college was good overall and outstanding in some areas, with its work on social inclusion in one of the country's more deprived areas receiving particular praise.

Before her tenure, inspectors said Highbury had too much mediocre teaching, declining enrolments and poor retention rates.

Next year its new pound;60 million buildings are expected to open. Given the college's financial position six years ago, some had said it would be impossible.

Mrs Mbubaegbu, who took inspiration for her management style from the US business guru Tom Peters, an advocate of employees being given a greater say in decision-making, says that the key to the college's success was setting a clear vision for it to become a "world-class" institution. Being allowed enough time to make changes and having supportive governors and staff was also crucial, she said. Her chairman of governors, John Wright, describes her as "a massive inspiration".

"I think being principal of Highbury College is what I am most proud of in my career," she says. "Six years ago, we were bumping along and in grave danger of losing our way completely."

The 52-year-old, who has three daughters, is an evangelical Christian from a family with a deep commitment to education. Her grandparents in Nigeria saved to send her father to university in England and his maxim became "With education you can go anywhere".

She started in further education teaching English language and literature at Southwark College in south London 19 years ago, after a decade working in schools. The more adult environment had a strong pull for her.

She has endured some racism along the way. "I don't dwell on it," she said. "Over the years I have had attempts by people treating me in a particular way or attempting to put me down, but I have never sat back or been defeated by any of that."

So when she was asked - or rather told, as she puts it - to chair the Black Leadership Initiative, there was no question of her refusing. The programme gives ethnic minority lecturers and managers the chance to be mentored or to shadow people in senior jobs.

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