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Academy chain learns a lesson at the school of hard knocks

Local government correspondent Neil Elkes examines the fallout from the financial scandal enveloping the Perry Beeches chain of schools

Liam Nolan outside the Perry Beeches II free school in Newhall Street, Birmingham
Liam Nolan outside the Perry Beeches II free school in Newhall Street, Birmingham

The financial scandal which is currently enveloping the high-profile Perry Beeches chain of academy and free schools is a sign of what can happen when amateurs are given access to a corporate cheque book.

This is not the first and will not be the last time this happens.

In Birmingham, we have seen various groups given government funding then lavish the cash on fancy offices as board members give themselves fancier job titles.

But with little experience of running a major organisation, they end up watching the whole thing unravel.

The famous Aston Pride organisation - given £54 million to create jobs for residents - unravelled in this fashion as various board members squabbled and mucked things up for a couple of years, squandering £5 million in the process, before the authorities stepped in and an experienced business leader was brought in to turn things round.

Now, it appears the same has happened at the Perry Beeches chain of schools where the boardroom was handed millions of pounds of public money and awarded contracts without checks and balances, made decisions without declaring clear conflicts of interest and failed to ensure appropriate scrutiny and oversight was in place.

They also allowed the forceful and confident headteacher Liam Nolan to take on the job as chief executive, which even he now admits was beyond his ability, and paying him through the back door.

It has also been found the school failed to retain the evidence that some 1,544 pupils for whom funding was claimed were in fact entitled to free school meals.

The report concluded there was no way of knowing whether or not this number were entitled to the meals or whether the school was over-claiming.

This is a massive fall from grace for Mr Nolan who was, until recently, the poster boy for academies and free schools.

Those governors and members of the General Teaching Council who supported him - despite a notorious brush with the law in Sandwell Valley in 2007 - had their faith repaid when the school rapidly climbed the league tables and achieved results that were proudly displayed on banners at the gates.

Critics have said he took over as headteacher at a Perry Beeches school which was on the way up anyway.

It had recently been rebuilt and its prefab huts replaced with state-of-the-art facilities.

As well as a successful headteacher, Mr Nolan proved to be a great salesman for the schools and an arch networker who liked to be seen rubbing shoulders with political leaders, whether it was Prime Minister David Cameron and former education secretary Michael Gove or former shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, who spoke at a conference hosted by Perry Beeches at Edgbaston cricket stadium.

There was also a group of local Labour MPs whose election campaign war chests were handed donations from Nexus Schools Ltd - the company closely linked to the school - although Mr Nolan, who has publicly and enthusiastically endorsed MPs like Jack Dromey, said these were nothing to do with him.

The school seized the opportunities offered by academisation and free schools to roll out the Perry Beeches name across the city - converting former inner city office blocks into schools run on his successful model.

People were endorsing and agreeing to anything Mr Nolan suggested, including that he should be both chief executive and headteacher.

And this was where things began to unravel as the school chain was allowed to expand unchecked, every request for a new school granted.

In the case of Perry Beeches V in Small Heath, there were strong objections from the local authority and neighbouring schools.

Perry Beeches III was then last year rated as inadequate, the first blot on the chain's copybook and now we have the exposure of financial mismanagement and lack of oversight on free school meals.

Mr Nolan, aware of the findings, had already taken pre-emptive action and, perhaps finally realising his limitations, decided to step down as chief executive and concentrate on being a headteacher.

Some suggested the reports from the Education Funding Agency had come at a good time for the Government, issued as we entered Easter weekend.

This could not be further from the truth as it followed by a matter of days the Government's announcement that all English schools would become academies.

It will be seized upon as evidence the academy system is open to exploitation and the Department for Education cannot even keep a check on the schools it is currently responsible for.

The Government can point to the fact the mismanagement was revealed, via a whistle blower, thoroughly investigated and the findings published for all to see in great detail.

Even an organisation with close friends in high places has been brought to book. The Perry Beeches trust is now on the brink of a takeover.

And in this respect, the Government is right.

There are many arguments against the wholesale conversion of schools to academies and the fact parents may not be represented on school boards.

But the tragedy of Perry Beeches is not one of them.

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