Perry Beeches III is among the five schools operated by Perry Beeches Academy Trust, led by Liam Nolan, regarded as a ‘superhead’ by Gove and by Cameron, who opened the free school himself in September 2013.
On May 19 Liam Nolan, not one to be shy about denigrating other Birmingham schools in order to set off his own success, told the Birmingham Mail that he could “really see a difference that free schools are making” to an “otherwise disastrous picture of education” in Birmingham. Just Three days later Ofsted began its inspection. Their report heavily criticised the school’s leadership for having an “unrealistic and inaccurate” view of the school, leaving governors with the impression it was doing better than it really was. Nolan has responded by saying “I wasn’t head here when we were inspected, it wasn’t on my watch,” – a quite extraordinary response. Of course it was exactly “on his watch” – he is the executive head of the school, the architect of the Perry Beeches empire, and notably not inhibited from taking the credit when his schools are successful.
Academies and free schools are no more effective than local authority schools
Liam Nolan has achieved impressive results at the Perry Beeches Academy. (Though an analysis of its results by Roger Titcombe reveals a highly disproportionate focus on gaining grade C compared to other schools. See ‘A Case Study in School Improvement’ in Forum 53(3) 2011.) Nolan says he applies the same model at PB3 as at the PB Academy, but every school is different and you can’t just transplant a secondary model to a primary school.
Perry Beeches III is not the only free school to fail an inspection. Ofsted has rated a quarter of the 93 mainstream free schools inspected across England so far as “inadequate” or “requiring improvement”. In Birmingham only the week after the Perry Beeches report was published Waverley Studio College free school in Bordesley Green was graded “inadequate”. It is yet further evidence that, contrary to repeated government claims, academies – and free schools are a type of academy – are not more effective than local authority schools. As the House of Commons Select Committee on Education reported in January, ‘Current evidence does not allow us to draw firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change.’
The penalty of over-extending
Particularly liable to fail are over-extended academy chains and multi-academy Trusts. Several chains have had to be capped by the government because the Napoleonic empire-building ambitions of their directors exceeded their competence to run their schools. But this can also apply to much smaller multi-academy trusts, as Lee Donoghy, ex deputy head of the Park View academy, has argued was the explanation for the failure of the Park View Trust.
Over-supply of places
There is another cost to opening free schools with no regard to the needs of the local area – an over-supply of school places. Councillor Brigid Jones, cabinet member for children’s services, recently lashed out at Mr Nolan after he announced plans to open his fifth school in Small Heath in September. She argues that Perry Beeches V will create an “oversupply” of places and will therefore jeopardise the future of other schools in the area.
Why academies and free schools should be integrated into a local authority system
The problems at Perry Beeches III, and at the Waverley Studio College, could have been identified and dealt with before they became serious if they had been part of a properly resourced local authority system which could exercise oversight. That’s one of the main lessons of the Trojan Horse affair, and it is only a matter of time before yet another Birmingham academy fails its Ofsted because there is no independent oversight by elected local government.
When academies fail they are handed over to another sponsor aren’t they?
So what will happen now to Perry Beeches III? The normal response of the DfE to any school put into Special Measures is to rapidly force it to become an academy. The policy when an academy fails is supposed to be to hand it over to another sponsor to run. But Liam Nolan is too much the government’s poster-boy for that. In a statement, a Department for Education spokesman merely said: “Swift action has already been taken to change the leadership of Perry Beeches III and to turn around the performance of the school.” The head, deputy and assistant head have been sacked but Liam Nolan remains the executive head.