'Walk in and wipe out was never an option'

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
When turnaround head Liam Nolan joined struggling Perry Beeches School one of his first - and unorthodox - decisions was to keep the management team he had inherited. Darren Evans reports

The huge banner that greets visitors to Perry Beeches School, in the deprived Great Barr district of Birmingham, proudly proclaims Ofsted's verdict to the world: "good with outstanding features".

Inside the recently refurbished building, considered a local landmark, the theme continues. Television screens beam out pictures of pupils and their exam grades, newspaper articles reporting various successes adorn the walls, and two TES Schools Awards (TESSAs) take pride of place on the reception desk.

In July, Perry Beeches was not only named Outstanding Secondary School of the Year at the third annual TESSAs, but its staff also took home the ultimate accolade - Overall Outstanding School of the Year. The well-deserved awards cap an extraordinary few years for Perry Beeches, during which it was transformed from a failing institution threatened with closure, rife with "atrocious behaviour", poor morale and underachieving pupils, to a successful, popular, oversubscribed school that can justifiably claim to be the UK's "most improved ever".

This statement, which can be seen on noticeboards throughout the building and is often followed by three exclamation marks, is based on the phenomenal turnaround in GCSE results. In 2007, only 21 per cent of pupils gained five A*-C grades including English and maths at GCSE, but last year that had risen to 75 per cent.

So what is the secret of Perry Beeches' success? Much has already been written about the methods and policies of its inspiring headteacher Liam Nolan, whose arrival in April 2007 had an immediate galvanising effect on staff and pupils. But his unorthodox approach to leadership is perhaps his most noteworthy policy, and the one that may have had the biggest impact on the school's reversal of fortunes.

Many heads appointed to failing or troubled schools seem to fall back on a simple, tried-and-tested formula for improvement: the cliche of "out with the old and in with the new". Their first act is often to get rid of a number of teachers and senior managers and replace them with new appointments in an effort to breathe new life into the school and begin the rebuilding process with a fresh outlook. But Mr Nolan decided to do things differently. Uniquely, it seems, the remarkable transformation at Perry Beeches has been achieved without any significant staff changes, and the senior management team is the same now as it was when he joined the school.

Brought up on a tough inner-city Manchester estate ("real Shameless territory"), and having spent his entire teaching career working in challenging schools in similar circumstances, Perry Beeches was a natural fit for Mr Nolan. "I recognised it straight away: tough, working-class, inner-city," he says. "That's the world I know; it's my background and where I feel most effective. But it was probably the toughest school I have ever seen, and I have worked in Hammersmith, Hounslow and Wolverhampton. I saw atrocious behaviour: pupils and staff arguing in the corridors, lots of children out of lessons. The staff were demotivated and divided."

Faced with such a scenario, many heads would be forgiven for falling back on the trusted formula for improvement to get some quick gains, but not Mr Nolan. "I had always been told that what you should do in a situation like this is 'walk in and wipe out'," he says. "You're the new broom and you sweep the room clean, bin the old staff and bring in your own team to get the job done. But I knew, morally, that was not correct.

"Even the local authority suggested that staff changes would be needed. Their advice was that a number of the senior leadership team had to go, because in their estimation they were the root cause of the problem. But they had not seen what I had. I quickly realised that the job was about empowering people to do the right thing, to create a team.

"I knew the people here had real abilities; they had a passion for this community and for those young people. When I met them I knew they were good people trying to do a good job, but they were misdirected. What they needed was support, guidance, leadership and, most of all, a role model."

Associate head Jackie Powell says staff morale was at an "all-time low" before Mr Nolan arrived, and few on the senior management team expected to keep their jobs for long. "We were warned that the new head might want to have a new team because that's what a lot of new heads do. Their way of managing is to walk in, wipe out and bring in their own people, and I understand that," she says. "But he made it clear on day one that that was not his intention. He saw a school and a staff that needed caring for above all else. He made the decision that staff were doing individually brilliant jobs, but hadn't been led properly and needed to become part of a team."

Under Mr Nolan's leadership, the staff, governors and pupils began a new mission to work together, even branding themselves "Team PB". The school took a back-to-basics approach on issues such as discipline, uniform and attendance, balanced with greater freedom for staff and a real voice in decision-making for pupils. Ms Powell describes the subsequent journey as a "fantastic rollercoaster ride, terrifically hard work but incredibly satisfying".

"Mr Nolan was a breath of fresh air. If someone believes you can do a good job, you rise to that. I think we have all risen to that and even exceeded it," she says. "There are quite a few of us on the senior leadership team who are now ready for headship, and that's because we have been led in a way that allows us to succeed."

Some incoming heads, however, are given little choice but to make sweeping changes to their senior staff. In 2005, veteran headteacher Joan McVittie realised she would have to make some difficult decisions even before taking the top job at the troubled White Hart Lane comprehensive in Haringey, north London. The school was struggling with exceptionally low standards, poor teaching and bad behaviour, and some of the reasons why started to become clear to Ms McVittie when she was interviewed.

"There were a range of panels conducting interviews, and the worst co-ordinated out of all of them was the one done by the senior leadership team," she says. "I just sat and looked at them and thought, 'Oh my God'. I thought, 'These kids deserve better than this'. It certainly wasn't possible to improve my school without getting rid of a few people. But I'm not there to provide employment for teachers; I'm there to provide education to pupils and that is what guides my decisions."

When she started the job in January 2006, a desk drawer full of confiscated knives, laser pens and replica guns was a stark reminder of the serious issues Ms McVittie would have to tackle at the school, where a third of pupils had learning difficulties and almost three-quarters spoke English as a second language.

'Totally out of their depth'

Ms McVittie knew she would have to start by addressing the school's leadership problems. She had an inexperienced deputy, who had stepped up to become acting headteacher when the previous head had left, and two supply deputies who were "totally out of their depth" - one took every third week off to go birdwatching. In addition, there were five assistant heads and "another three or four random people" co-opted to the team.

"The deputy head had put everybody on the leadership team," she explains. "It was her way of dealing with conflict. It was chaos. You can't run a leadership team with that many people."

The supply deputies were let go immediately and the deputy left shortly after. Only three of the assistant heads - "outstanding people" in Ms McVittie's words - remain in the new-look team at the renamed Woodside High, which has seen dramatically improved results.

Ms McVittie says the changes have had an "absolutely huge impact" on the school's overall improvement - a fact noted by Ofsted in its inspection report published in February this year, which said: "A key factor of the school's success is the 'team spirit' it engenders and the strong and decisive leadership at both senior and middle levels.

"The inspirational principal and her team are outstanding role models and set the highest of expectations for all within the school. The leaders' and managers' mission to drive up standards even further and the rapid rate of improvement made over a short period of time give the school an outstanding capacity for sustained improvement."

Heads' unions say the actions taken by Ms McVittie are more typical than those of Mr Nolan. Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Brian Lightman says: "It is probably fair to say that, in the majority of schools where a new leader comes in, there is likely to be a considerable amount of staff change, so it is very interesting and rather encouraging to hear the response taken by Mr Nolan.

"Mr Nolan has obviously identified that the people are not the issue in this case. In Perry Beeches he clearly had a group of people with the skills and potential to succeed so there was no reason to change them. One of the messages sometimes given is that there is a simple recipe for turning around a school in difficulty, but this case underlines the fact that no two schools are the same."

Mr Nolan's approach at Perry Beeches has been recognised by Ofsted, which in 2008 rated the quality of leadership "outstanding". As for Mr Nolan himself, he has no regrets about not firing anyone. "So many people think it is the answer, and it is such a mistake, because it is not. It hasn't been the answer as to why we are so successful - in fact, the opposite is true," he says. "To 'walk in and wipe out' without looking at the situation is simply immoral."


Liam Nolan has taken a number of unusual steps on the road of school improvement, including:

- A whole-school policy of honesty and openness - for example, Mr Nolan is openly gay. "Being an 'out' gay man meant that instantly I was saying to staff, students, families and the community, 'You are OK to be who you are, and it is OK to make mistakes. We do that together as a team'."

- A "respect agenda" to tackle bad behaviour. "One of the first things I did was tell staff that if they shout at students I will discipline them," Mr Nolan says. "I don't care what that youngster is doing, you do not shout at children. I told the children that if a member of staff shouts they come directly to me and tell me. Then I said that if they shout or are rude to a member of my team their feet won't touch the ground. The messages soon got out."

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