Schools for Scandal

If David Cameron wants to see corruption, he should visit Perry Beeches Academy Trust suggests Steve Beauchampé.

The news this week that Liam Nolan, disgraced Executive Headmaster of the Perry Beeches Academy Trust schools in Birmingham, had resigned – along with the entire Board of Governors – was long overdue. Nolan had been forced to step down as Chief Executive of the multi-academy chain in March following an investigation by the Education Funding Agency, the Department for Education’s accounting arm, into irregular payments made by the Trust. The EFA’s report uncovered serious and widespread financial mismanagement, with the EFA issuing the Trust with a Financial Notice To Improve.

Since when Nolan has been on sick leave from his £120,000 p.a. rôle as one of the Trust’s three Executive Head Teachers. Meaning that if he has remained on full pay he will have collected over £12,000 during his six weeks of inactivity, more than many agency and zero hours contract staff earn in a year. Until recently Nolan was also Accounting Officer at the Trust, where debts are estimated to be £1.8m and rising steadily.

The EFA investigation, launched last autumn, revealed that a supply company, Nexus Schools Ltd, had received over £1.297m from Perry Beeches Academy Trust over a two-year period. The Trust, which Nolan established in 2007, had paid Nexus for providing the services of a CEO, with Nexus then sub-contracting this rôle to Liam Nolan Ltd (of which Liam Nolan is sole director) at a cost of £160,000 over two years (£72,000 including VAT in 2013/4 and £88,200 plus VAT in 2014/5). Such an arrangement would have offered Nolan considerable tax advantages of a kind unlikely to have been available to the chains’ other teachers and not permitted to heads of state schools.

The EFA report stated that the payments were not transparent and were not disclosed in Perry Beeches’ 2013/4 financial statements. It further warned that the academy chain had no written contract with Nexus: “No evidence of a formal procurement exercise, including quotations and tendering, was available for expenditure within Nexus”.

Nexus also made campaign donations of £5,000 each prior to the 2015 general election to local Labour MPs Jack Dromey (Erdington), Shabanah Mahmood (Ladywood) and Gisela Stuart (Edgbaston). Following the EFA report all three returned the donations. Birmingham Conservatives said that they were offered sponsorship, but refused it.

The EFA also accused the Academy Trust of claiming up to £2.8m for children on free school meals “where no evidence of eligibility exists.” and ordered it to repay £118,291.

Lest anyone forget all of this was public money that could otherwise have been given to democratically accountable state schools.

In March, Cllr Brigid Jones, BCC Cabinet Member for Children’s Services (whose portfolio includes Education), said: “The leadership at Perry Beeches were allowed to expand into unsuitable places, allowed to open new Free Schools when a third of their existing ones were inadequate, was allowed to take public funds from children on free school meals to give to children who weren’t, and got away with paying its head a second salary. Whilst they did all this, ministers smiled at their ribbon cuttings, invited their head to their party conference and declared them the best schools in the city.”

If ever there was a case against the Government’s ideologically driven Academies and Free Schools programme it is to be found at Perry Beeches and with Liam Nolan. Enjoying arms-length, light touch regulation from Whitehall and with little or no meaningful accountability within their own locality, such Trusts are essentially self-governing businesses exempt from the kind of independent oversight experienced by state schools and free to set their own salary scales.

Nolan was a vocal advocate of Conservative education reforms and in 2012 was invited to speak at the party’s annual conference in Birmingham. Feted by Prime Minster David Cameron, who later made a high profile visit to Perry Beeches, Nolan became known by the moniker ‘superhead’. That political support now appears to have evaporated and Mr. Nolan seems highly unlikely to be invited back when the Conservatives return to Birmingham this October.

The EFA’s findings are not the first occasion that Nolan has courted controversy. In November 2008 he was convicted of outraging public decency following an incident with another adult in Sandwell Valley that occurred during school time. He was reprimanded by the General Teaching Council but allowed to carry on teaching following what the Birmingham Mail described as a ‘tearful’ address to a disciplinary hearing.

Nolan has been a master of self-promotion and news management, helped by a largely complaint local press, many of who were persuaded by his supposed charisma, media savvy national profile and high level political connections. Persuaded also by the improved exam results and positive OFSTED ratings that his schools achieved, despite Perry Beeches 3 being placed in special measures last July after an OFSTED inspection found the school ‘inadequate’ and its teaching ‘dull’. The school’s Head, Deputy Head and Assistant Head all resigned, along with the Chair of Governors but Nolan resisted calls for his own departure.

Even on Wednesday, Nolan tried to downplay his resignation as merely ‘stepping aside’, allowing the Trust to ‘move forward’ whilst referring to news that two further planned Perry Beeches schools were no longer going ahead merely as their having been ‘paused’.

With investigations into the financial affairs of the Perry Beeches Academy chain ongoing we are unlikely to have learnt everything about this scandal yet. And we only know what we do know largely as a result of the actions of a disgruntled former Perry Beeches employee and the subsequent probing by the Educational Funding Authority after that employee contacted the DfE; neither the Perry Beeches Academy Trust nor Liam Nolan voluntarily placed this information in the public domain.

What an appalling example to set to pupils and the parents who trusted both Perry Beeches and its figurehead with their children’s education. And what values Liam Nolan has displayed to those whom he was supposed to prepare for adulthood. The indications are that Perry Beeches Academy Trust will now be broken up; hopefully, at the very least, Liam Nolan will never again be permitted to run an educational establishment.