School that refused to become academy is most improved

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The Independent Online

It was probably the kind of place that Alastair Campbell had in mind when he referred to "bog standard comprehensive schools". Yet Perry Beeches school in Birmingham has shaken off all attempts to turn it into an academy, and has now become the most improved school in the history of exam results.

Three years ago, when headteacher Liam Nolan took up his post, just 21 per cent of pupils gained the benchmark five A* to C grade results at GCSE including maths and English. It was placed on the then Education Secretary Ed Balls' hit list of schools which were told to improve or face either closure or being made into an academy.

Now, 74 per cent of its pupils achieve the benchmark – making it the most improved school ever over a three-year period. The school also has a 100 per cent record for pupils gaining five A* to C grade passes.

Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, is considering laying on visits so others schools can learn from Perry Beeches about how to reverse their own fortunes.

"It was really basic things that we did," said Mr Nolan when he was asked how the improvement had been achieved. "For a start, we brought in a strict uniform policy and we brought in a system of respect – no matter what the age group.

"When I walk into a classroom students now stand up as a mark of respect. We now have no permanent exclusions in this academic year as the pupils have learnt from this. Attendance has also gone up from the late 80s to 96 per cent."

The 900-pupil school is used as a training facility for newly qualified teachers, and has recently had to turn away 180 parents seeking a place for their child. A record 50 appeals against the refusal of a school place are being heard.

Attempts to persuade Perry Beeches to accept academy status have been rebuffed. "It is still a maintained school – Alastair Campbell would have called it a bog-standard comprehensive," Mr Nolan said.

Letha Charles, who chairs the school's governing body, added: "We are proud to be a normal state school run by our local council. We don't believe we need to be an academy to be a success – you just need a clear vision, good communication with staff, parents and students and strong leadership."

The inspectors' latest report on Perry Beeches read: "The school has made a remarkable journey in the last 18 months and is a rapidly improving school. Everyone is full of pride for what has been achieved in a short space of time. There is a real sense of belonging to team 'PB'."

In 2007, before Mr Nolan's arrived, the school had been reported as failing by Ofsted. The school's brightest pupils now sit GCSE exams – including maths and English – one or two years early. "We do exams when we are ready to take them," said Telisha Hutton, a pupil in her GCSE year. "It is a great chance to take pressure off all the exams taken all at once."

Labour began its 13 years in power repeating the mantra "standards not structures", suggesting that it was the standards in the school rather than the structure it was operating under that determined the quality of learning. That mantra changed with the advent of academies, but Perry Beeches is proof that schools can still succeed if they stick to the former.