Cameron and Gove share responsibility for Perry Beeches scandal
Liam Nolan, former CEO of Perry Beeches The Academy Trust (PBAT), was a poster boy for the academies and free school movement. Former Education Secretary Michael Gove opened PBAT’s first free school, Perry Beeches II, and described Nolan’s two schools as the best in Birmingham. Nolan featured in a Department for Education puff piece extolling government education policy with Jacqueline Powell, then head of Perry Beeches II. David Cameron opened Perry Beeches III and used the occasion to praise free schools.
But Ofsted judged Perry Beeches III to be inadequate. The Education Funding Agency (EFA) published two damning reports about the Trust’s financial management and issued a Financial Notice to Improve. Nolan and Powell have accepted responsibility and resigned.
The contribution of Cameron and Gove to the Perry Beech debacle should not be forgotten. They oversold the academies and free schools programme. They set up a structure for academy trusts which relies on independent auditors spotting irregularities – but if these aren’t obvious they can go unnoticed. They set up Nolan as a ‘superhead’ offering a superior education.
Perry Beeches isn’t an isolated case. There are other instances where Cameron and Gove have praised academies which have later been embroiled in financial scandal:
- Kings Science Academy: its head, Sajid Hussain Raza, is on trial for fraud. Gove said he was a ‘crusader’ for social justice. Gove was accused of a cover up by sitting on a critical report about Kings’ finances for months before it eventually became public.
- Barnfield Federation: its chief, Sir Peter Birkett, one of Gove’s ‘Magnificent Seven’, was at the helm when the Federation claimed £1m for non-existent students.
- Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust: its head Patricia Sowter CBE, was another of Gove’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ and a ‘crusader’ for social justice. CHAT was served with a Financial Notice to Improve last year.
- Durand Academy Trust: Sir Greg Martin, Gove’s ‘favourite’ head, had a bruising encounter with the Public Accounts Committee. The EFA served DAT with a Financial Notice to Improve. The Charities Commission is still investigating Durand Educational Trust.
- Durham Free School. Gove described the school as being ‘excellent value’ and a ‘challenger school helping to raise standards’. This assessment was premature. The Durham Free School was judged Inadequate and served with a Financial Notice to Improve. It has since closed.
Feted, fawned upon and favoured – the six trusts above were enthusiastically encouraged by the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary. But excessive praise can result in hubris, pride and a sense of invulnerability – a recipe for disaster. Cameron and Gove set them up as examples for others to follow. This was irresponsible: ideology trounced good sense. Cameron and Gove cannot duck responsibility for the ensuing financial failures: they built the foundations on which these trusts floundered.