‘There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit,’ Michael Gove told the Leveson Inquiry last week. ‘I have an open mind. I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision.’
In Southwark, we’ve got used to seeing local schools be taken over by the Harris Federation, the chain set up by the Carpetright mogul Baron Harris of Peckham, responsible at the moment for 13 academies and with a couple of free schools on the way. There’s the Harris Academy Peckham, formerly the cybergroovy Academy@Peckham. There are the Harris Boys’ and Girls’ Academies East Dulwich, the boys with orange edging on their blazers and the girls in blue. There’s the Harris Primary Academy Peckham Park – among other things, the Academies Act 2010 encouraged ambitious primaries to ‘convert’ – and the Harris Primary Free School Peckham, due to open on the campus of the Harris Academy Peckham in September.
At the moment, academies and free schools are not allowed to make profits for their sponsors. Instead of even beginning to float the question, the custom within pro-academy circles is to applaud a sponsor’s sense of philanthropic mission. Philip Harris grew up in Peckham in the 1940s and 1950s and built his carpet-retail fortune from small beginnings in South London. For more than 20 years, he says, he and his family ‘have been actively supporting the development of schools and academies’. In 1990 he opened one of the first City Technical Colleges, Crystal Palace CTC in Croydon, which in 2007 became the Harris City Academy Crystal Palace. A generous donor to the Conservative Party, Harris was made a Tory life peer in 1996 and seems to be a great Gove favourite. Last year his federation earned what its website calls ‘fullsome praise’ from the education minister: ‘For generations the working-class communities of South London have been tragically ill-served by council-run schools…’ A South London boy made good, giving back to the community he came from etc.
But now Harris is moving in north of the river, too. On Tuesday 22 May, teachers walked out from Downhills Primary School in Tottenham, currently being ordered by government fiat to leave its local authority (Haringey, Labour) and join with the Harris Federation instead. One theory is that Harris may have started eyeballing the area last summer, after a visit to what was the Tottenham High Road Carpetright until it was burned to the ground in the riots that followed the killing of Mark Duggan.
The carpeting connection has gripped the imaginations of Save Downhills campaigners. ‘Carpet Time is for Learning, Not Selling Rugs,’ said a placard at the 22 May demonstration. The following Saturday, parents and children briefly occupied the Carpetright outlet in Tottenham Hale retail park, sitting down to hear a story about Lord Bigwig, the misguided Magic Carpet Seller who thought he could roll out children by the metre and fit them wall to wall. ‘We thought that if Lord Harris is trying to take over our school, we should take over one of his shops for a while,’ one parent told the local press.
According to the Department for Education, Downhills has been chosen for forced ‘conversion’ because it fails its children (largely working-class, ethnically various). SAT scores seldom hit the government’s ‘floor standards’ in either English or maths. In January an Ofsted inspection squad put the school into Special Measures. And yet, a clear majority of parents – including a vocal middle-class contingent – dearly love the school as it is, and say that it’s doing plenty already to improve the quality of what their children learn. That’s why they took their children to the park to support their striking teachers, with face-paints and pop-up gazebos. The NUT rep was dressed in a sweaty-looking fat-cat costume, on loan, he said, from the Anti Academies Alliance. Michael Rosen appeared, wearing a folded-newspaper sun-hat. He read a story featuring a government that’s ‘incompetent and laughable and evil’, and companies that only want to get people to buy stuff. ‘Feel free to hiss whenever you want.’
The five-a-side football was being run by Pat Berryman, a young hedge-fund trader wearing a Kings of Leon T-shirt. For four years he was a member of the Downhills Governing Body, until a couple of months ago, when the head resigned and Berryman and his colleagues were all sacked. The school is now run by an Interim Executive Board made up of five members, two of them from Harris. ‘I work in the City,’ Berryman said. ‘I know what these people are like. It might well start out as philanthropy, but sooner or later they want to make money from it. They do it without even realising it. That’s just what they’re like.’
Later, Berryman sent me a story from the Business pages of the Telegraph, about how Harris has recently appointed a ‘big hitter’ to head up Carpetright, which has ‘issued seven profit warnings in little over a year, hit by the moribund housing market and running too many outlets on retail parks’. Harris staff currently get a 20 per cent discount on all their Carpetright flooring, so maybe that’ll help shift some of the sticking stock.