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Five years for head who swindled school of £500,000

A headmistress was sentenced to five years' jail yesterday for swindling £500,000 from the school budget.

Colleen McCabe, the former head of the 1,100-pupil St John Rigby College in Bromley, south-east London, squandered the cash on expensive jewellery, shoes, holidays, restaurants and the theatre.

She was convicted on 15 July of 11 sample counts of theft and six of deception, and jailed yesterday by a judge at Southwark Crown Court.

McCabe's lavish lifestyle went undetected for five years until 1999 when Bromley council regained responsibility for auditing the college's accounts.

Judge Christopher Elwen told McCabe, 51, a former nun: "Depriving as you did the children under your care of funds intended to be spent for their education and welfare was a gross breach of trust.

"It was put to you in court that you were a thoroughly dishonest woman. You were described ... as arrogant, dogmatic and a bully. Your performance marked you out as self-satisfied, manipulative and mendacious."

About 25 former pupils and teachers filled the public gallery as he continued: "You treated the college's funds as your own property to be used for the benefit of yourself, your family and your ecclesiastical friends without regards to the interests or welfare of the college and your pupils."

The judge told McCabe it was not for him to comment on how her dishonesty "escaped the attention of the governors and auditors for so long - others may have their own views".

Her "fraudulent behaviour" had stopped only when discovery became imminent but she then sought to blame her former friend and one-time college bursar, Maureen Stapley, who was acquitted by the jury.

Rejecting defence pleas for a suspended sentence, the judge said she had indulged in a "wilful continuation of a gross breach of trust for a long period of time" and shown "no hint of remorse". McCabe failed to appear for sentencing on 22 August, and Judge Geoffrey Rivlin warned then that she faced a lengthy jail sentence. McCabe was rearrested the following day, after discharging herself from the Queen Mary hospital in Sidcup, where she was treated for chest pains.

The court had earlier heard McCabe started at the college after leaving the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, where she was a nun, in 1994. She then went on a course of "milking and attacking and abusing" the £3m annual school budget, which was largely under her control, leaving the school in a financial crisis.

McCabe had wallowed in a life of luxury that "would have made Imelda Marcos proud", the jury was told. She spent money on Gucci jewellery, fine restaurants, theatre "extravaganzas" and shoes costing £7,000.Andrew Wilcken, for the prosecution, said she had "hammered" her Barclaycard in the weeks up to Christmas 1997.

Stanley Callow, the manager of the jewellery store, Simon Marks, in Eltham, south-east London, said: "I rarely deal with customers but we all knew we had a good day when Miss McCabe had been in."

Detective Sergeant Richard Ward, of the Metropolitan Police Fraud Squad, said: "Looking at her spending, it is selfishness and greed beyond all belief. Even now she shows no remorse, she can't understand why she's been convicted. She was very greedy and dishonest."

Nick Ward, aged 17, a former pupil, said: "She stole our education. But anything more than five years' [jail] would have been excessive."

St John Rigby College is now a voluntary aided school - maintained in partnership with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark. A new school management team has been set up.