Top comprehensive head: ‘Why I believe in free schools and why I plan to open more’

25th November 2013 at 15:00
Liam Nolan, executive headteacher of Perry Beeches, The Academy, Birmingham, writes:
"I am getting fed up of the endless criticism of free schools based on one or two rogue examples.

Let’s cut to the chase about free schools.

Why should I, a left-leaning, inner-city comprehensive-educated NUT member, who has only ever worked at tough state-maintained, local authority schools in socially disadvantaged areas, seek to open more free schools than anyone in England? 
The reason is that it is because they make economic, educational and moral sense. Free schools allow me to create schools that give our students the very best education chances – better than I had. That’s why.
In 2007 Perry Beeches, where I am head, was a "failing" Local Authority school. Not so much targeted by the ruling Conservative/Liberal local authority as ignored and patronised because nobody knew what to do with it. Certainly no-one expected anything better of the intake of students.
The turnaround of Perry Beeches pulled us, the team, closer together. Team PB had a formula, a system: a practical way of working that could really impact on schools in areas similar to our own. 
We watched other fairly successful Birmingham schools go into negotiation with the city council and be given the chance to lead less successful schools, schools they could support, turnaround, develop and grow using their expertise and their own magic. Varied levels of success followed. 
We waited our turn but were offered nothing. Not even when we were named the TES Outstanding Secondary School of the Year 2011/2012 and then Overall Outstanding School of the Year 2011/2012 did it make any difference.
I became a National Leader of Education and PB a National Support School in the hope of being spotted and offered the chance to share our particular "magic" – to no avail. We supported schools as far away as Brighton and Newcastle, but not our home city schools, some of whom needed our help.
Then the chance to lead our own new school – a free school – came out of some local consultation. A new school that we could shape PB-style. A non-selective, 11-18, mixed comprehensive school, in the centre of the city. We could convert a disused office block and serve the Ladywood constituency of Birmingham.   
This would be a school for the local community where a non-selective secondary school had not existed since the Eighties. A secondary school to work alongside the primary schools in what was known as the third most deprived ward in Europe.
A PB school, run by professionals who understand this type of school, this area of the city and its needs. A success-driven, motivated PB Team bringing its personal "magic" to an area of most need. 
Our curriculum would include an extended school day, including free breakfast and extra literacy and numeracy classes long after other schools finished. It would have a strong emphasis on training new recruits using the school direct model, degree-qualified, trained on the job at the chalk face. This was our type of school.
A building project included buying, refurbishing and fitting out superb facilities; a gym, dance studio, science labs, a multi-use games area and a recording studio. All for £5 million.
Not some fancy £30 million hanger with controlled temperatures and swanky glass offices. Real classroom space and money spent on books, equipment and giving students access to the basic tools of learning.
Our free school doesn’t accept any excuses as to why we can’t succeed, whether that be FSM, poverty of space, limited resources or nature of intake. We have a drive to give our students the same chances as some of the grammar schools that surround us.  And why not?
Let’s cut to the chase about free schools.
We are using the freedoms given to us by education secretary Michael Gove to get to the root of the inequalities we saw before Perry Beeches became an academy and before we conceived of our free schools, PB II and PB III. 
We are practising professionals on the ground providing the sort of education that students in our city centre need. They crave to be successful in life. Parents choose a PB school – "free" or not – in overwhelming numbers.
All our schools are oversubscribed. The local community, the current city council and our partner primary schools relish what we bring.
Our free-school work is a courageous attempt to offer choice, the chance of brilliance and the opportunity for us to really tackle inequality.
I believe the wider free-school movement is sometimes attacked by individuals or groups who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Instead of being brave and putting their heads above the parapet, they simply accept mediocrity in our schools. They will not even look closely at our success.
We’ll apply to open more free schools and we’ll continue to bring to life the dream of success our parents and our community want for our young people."


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