Harris the Hero?

Recently, Michael Gove wrote what may have been his own epitaph in the Guardian. It was an article about his “hero”, Philip Harris, who was ennobled for services to the Conservative Party (he was/is a major donor to the party). Harris has been given control of the budgets of more than a dozen schools under Gove’s regime, including several who were forced kicking and screaming into the Harris empire against the will of parents, governors and staff. This famously modest man instantly renamed all the schools he took over after, er, himself. He then took on an equally modest figure in Daniel Moynihan, his chief executive, who pays himself the generous salary of more than £300k (last figures some time ago – now probably more), who I once met when he didn’t know I was a teacher. The way he spoke of teachers – all teachers – in that meeting left an indelible mark. Hence my interest in Harris.

There is a story to be done on how Harris operate in terms of employment practises, and the way they game the stats for league tables, but this isn’t it. What this is, is an emetic designed to counter the syrupy nonsense Gove poured onto the page. It’s very easy to talk about being “passionate”, “committed to raising standards”, “no excuses culture” etc , but actually there are now cold, hard stats by which we can judge reality, and see whether Gove’s gushing eulogy for the man who has funded his party so generously, is anything other than the praise of a bought man for his owner.

Last year, the Sutton Trust report prompted me to dig around a bit in the Harris statistics. Here’s some findings which don’t quite fit with the predominant conservative world view about Harris being the saviour of education.


This is Harris Crystal Palace’s DFE dataset. Harris Crystal Palace is the chain’s flagship, which is one reason why I focused on it.  Give credit to the LibDems who insisted on this lot being published. It’s really quite comprehensive. Obviously pinches of salt all round, accepting that issues like 5 A*-C rating isn’t the most solid of performance indicators once schools have figured out how to game the system. Nevertheless, a few things really stand out:

Harris Crystal Palace is based in a fairly deprived area in Norwood. Its nearest three primaries (1), (2), and (3) have the following indicators :

FSM = (1) 37.6%; (2) 20.5%; (3) 40.4%

EAL = (1) 44.6%; (2) 19%; (3) 39.4%

SEN or School Action Plus = (1) 19.9%; (2) 6.6%; (3) 19.7%

Other local schools have similarly high levels, so we can see that this is a tough area with a high proportion of FSM, SEN and EAL. We’d expect to see Harris Crystal Palace with a similar set of figures. Here are theirs :

FSM = 11.3%

EAL = 15.5%

SEN or school action plus = 3.9%

So as you can see, Harris take far fewer children with FSM, EAL or SEN than those prevalent in their local area. What a remarkable feat for a non-selective school. How do they manage this ?

The answer is that they have a “banded” admissions policy. Here’s the words from their own website :

Ten percent of places will be reserved for students based on their aptitude for Technology, which is one of the specialisms of the Academy.

The remaining places will be allocated by placing students, based on the results of their Non-Verbal Reasoning Test, into one of 9 ability groups of approximately equal size. The assessment is not a pass or fail test. It is designed to ensure that students of all abilities have an equal chance of gaining a place at the Academy.

So Harris assess all applicants, and take children from across the ability range. Super. Except….

Have a look further down their stats at the section called “Cohort Information”. This tells you the nature of the intake based on prior achievement. So those students achieving less than level 4 at the end of primary school are “low attainers”, those with level 4 are “middle attainers”, and those with above level 4 are “high attainers”.

Harris’s figures for the 2012 cohort are as follows :

Low attainers – 1% Middle attainers – 29% High attainers – 70%

Well, well. It turns out that Harris’s banded system designed to give access to students of all abilities, only seems to identify those students of average or – the great majority – above average ability. Harris Crystal Palace is a de facto grammar school. It is selective on both social and academic grounds, excluding a hugely disproportionate number of disadvantaged or less able students from its locality. In other words, its admissions policy is a fiction. Its much-praised results have nothing whatsoever to do with its academy status, or the wondrous abilities of Mr Carpet Warehouse. Rather, its results are due to excluding the local population and cherrypicking clever middle class children from much further away (it’s a matter of local amusement in my wealthy white middle-class area of Beckenham that kids from here who apply to Harris Crystal Palace always get in, despite it being miles away and theoretically banded – our kids always get in the top 10% of each band, somehow…).

Now that is already an admissions investigation in the making. However, there’s more. With that sort of intake, you’d expect astonishing results.

My own school (comprehensive in a grammar school area) takes in 10% low ability, 50% middle and 40% high. Good, but not Harris standard. Harris select an overwhelmingly above-average ability cohort. So let’s compare results.

Ebacc : Harris (43%); my school (45%)

Average point scores : Harris (383.5); my school (407.5)

Value Added : Harris (998.3); my school (1046.9)

So despite fiddling their admissions, despite selecting an overwhelmingly high-ability cohort, despite receiving more money, having smaller class sizes, more support staff, even a higher average teacher salary, Harris deliver worse results than my poor old, bog-standard comprehensive which doesn’t even get the grammar school kids.

Perhaps the staff in my school should be Gove’s heroes instead ?


I pulled those figures a year ago from the 2012 data. In the interests of fairness, I had a revisit of Harris Crystal Palace’s 2013 figures, so that we could see if they did better in 2013 than they did in 2012.

The statistics remain odd :

Harris continues to have a disproportionately able intake (46% higher ability, 45% middle ability, 9% lower ability). This has rather more lower ability than their previous year, but still a very high-ability intake overall.

SEN remains very low at 5%. Obviously parents of children with SEN don’t choose Harris for some reason – possibly since Harris refused a place to a student in a wheelchair on the grounds that it was a health and safety risk to other students – a story which gained lots of coverage in this area.

They also have a low EAL (for London) of 12%. In other words, we’re still looking at an intake which is of higher ability, and has fewer challenging students, than both other secondary schools in the area, and – oddly – the local primary schools which surround it.

So what have they done with this privileged intake ?

Their average points score has dropped to 323 (still lower than my comp, with its less able intake).

The Ebacc headline has hurt Harris (as it’s hurt many academy chains which claimed to be focusing on being “academic”, but actually were manipulating the qualification system). They’re down to 40% achieving Ebacc, compared to my own school’s 59%.

An interesting snippet here is that the tone of Gove’s article, and Harris’s propaganda, is that they do marvellous things with disadvantaged students. Yet they entered none of their prior low attainers for the Ebacc subjects. To be honest, this isn’t surprising, as few children not achieving Level 4 by the end of primary school are going to be able to access the ebacc subjects – I don’t have a problem with guiding them into subjects which they might get more out of. However, what’s interesting is that only 40% of their middle attainers, and even only 78% of their prior high attainers were entered for Ebacc – that means a LOT of perfectly able students are being kept away from the more academic GCSEs. As a comparator, my school’s figures were 65% middle attainers and 93% high attainers entered for the Ebacc. There’s a question there about why Harris aren’t entering their very able cohort for the academic qualifications which they claim is their focus. Something doesn’t add up.

There are some stats which I can’t really compare to last year because their method of calculation has changed, so it wouldn’t be comparing like with like. However, suffice it to say that Harris Crystal Palace’s FSM intake of 12% is much lower than the average for the area in which it is situated. The school continues to take an intake which is much more able, and much less disadvantaged than the community which surrounds it. I’m sure Moynihan is investigating this right now, to ensure that the school changes its admissions policy to target those disadvantaged working class kids who Gove cares so much about.

I’m not, by the way, claiming that Harris Crystal Palace is a “bad school”, as Gove and Wilshaw like to classify schools in their simplistic binary way. They do what they do with the students they have. What I AM saying is that they have found a way to consistently admit an intake which is unrepresentative of their community, and what they achieve with that intake is actually nothing very special. Maybe in Gove’s eyes, this makes Harris a “hero”. I set the bar a bit higher for my heroes.

Update 2

I was asked to do a similar study on another Harris school.

I chose Harris S Norwood because it’s also quite close to me, so I know the area, and it’s been open for 7 years according to its website, which means that Harris can be held accountable for everything going on there, whereas some of the others you mentioned, like Beckenham or Bromley, have only been in the Harris gulag for a year or so, so the results/intake is not yet 100% Harris.

Here’s the link


The key stats are :

Overall SEN 5.9% EAL 16.2% FSM 22.6%

I had a look at the three closest primaries again, who you’d expect to send the bulk of their children to Harris S Norwood. S Norwood is not a wealthy area, so you won’t be surprised to find that the three nearest community primary schools have the following figures :

SEN (1) 5.1%; (2) 8.6%; (3) 8.5%

EAL (1) 32.8%; (2) 33.3%; (3) 17.1%

FSM (1) 41.2%; (2) 41.9%; (3) 23.4%

I had originally omitted local religious primary schools (their intakes are often disproportionately advantaged), but before I am accused of cherry-picking, here’s the two which are within the same distance as the community schools above :

SEN (1) 5.8%; (2) 11.5%

EAL (1) 73.4%; (2) 32.2%

FSM (1) 22.8%; (2) 22%

So what we have emerging in terms of an overall picture, is of a secondary school whose population seems significantly less challenging than its surrounding primary population, particularly in the field of EAL, but also in SEN and FSM terms. Not quite as stark a gap as Harris Crystal Palace, but there’s still a disconnect. Also interesting is that by the time you get to the Y11 cohort measured in 2013, the number of SEN and EAL kids has shrunken quite a lot – to 3% and 11% respectively. So either this cohort has an unusually small number of EAL and SEN kids in a school which already has an unusually small number of EAL and SEN kids, or some EAL and SEN kids have disappeared before Y11. Impossible to say from the statistics, but Croydon council have recently asked for an investigation into Harris’s record of “missing” students, so it’s an interesting finding.

Let’s look at the actual achievement of the cohort. At Crystal Palace we saw that the Harris school seemed to be taking a much more able intake than a random or comprehensive selection would provide. Will it be repeated at South Norwood ?

Certainly, it’s nowhere near as skewed towards the top end as Harris Crystal Palace, with 19% low attainers, 54% middle attainers, and 26% upper attainers. The figures for the LEA are that 74% of KS2 students are middle or higher attaining students. The figure is 75% nationally. So South Norwood has a higher ability intake than the local average and than the national average. It is not, therefore, struggling manfully with disadvantaged working class kids. It’s taking in a student body which is less disadvantaged than the local average, and more able than the local and national averages.

So what does it do with these students ?

The answer is mixed :

78% 5 A*-C including English and Maths is the headline – significantly higher than the national average, which you’d expect from their higher than average ability intake.

Only 31% getting the Ebacc though, and again we see the pattern we saw at Harris Crystal Palace, which is that most of the low-attainers (9% entered) and middle-attainers (43% entered) are not entered for Ebacc subjects. Only 70% of high-attainers were entered too. That’s fairly low for very able students who you’d expect to be doing more academic subjects.

Average point score was 292 when you strip out the non-GCSE qualifications, which is lower than Crystal Palace, but then you’d expect that because Crystal Palace has a higher prior attainment.

So there you have it. What we can see again is that somehow another Harris school has managed to find an intake which is more advantaged than the locality in which it is situated. What it then achieves with this intake is pretty much in line with what other London schools achieve with similar intakes. There’s nothing outstandingly good, or atrociously bad about it. In other words, it’s a school which does what you’d expect with the students it’s got.

Which is my point. I don’t claim that all Harris Academies are rubbish. They are just schools. A number of them do seem to have found a magic way of keeping out less able or more disadvantaged children from their neighbourhoods, which I don’t like much, but in terms of results, the students who go there do what you’d expect, with a possible suggestion that Harris steer students away from harder subjects in order to drill them for the headline A*-C figure – but they wouldn’t be alone in that.

What I do object to is that their supporters claim that they are educational alchemy, where the genius of Harris, and the “traditional methods” have wrought transformations which we should all be aping. Basically, the evidence simply doesn’t support that. These are schools achieving normal results for their intake. Yet we have the Education Secretary himself penning an article which suggests that the very rich Tory party donor who modestly forces his own name on to all these schools, should be lauded to the rooftops for his wonderful achievements.

All that has really changed is where the money goes. Everything else is smokescreen and guff.


19 thoughts on “Harris the Hero?

  1. Remember the term ‘fair banding’ covers a multitude. Most schools adopting banding are banding across those who apply, ie whose parents bring them to the school for the test. Really fair banding would be if all schools locally agreed to do it using the same system and using tests set on all pupils in the primary schools. Very rare – but Hackney does it. However banding like selecting on aptitude is found much more in London than anywhere else. Many schools across the country including academies use distance and siblings. Have a look at http://comprehensivefuture.org.uk/parents-choice-or-schools-choice-time-for-a-review-of-school-admissions/


  2. An excellent article. However you have missed the even more damning detail of what happens to the kids when they are in an Academy. It appears that a large % are lost at the end of Year 10.


    You’ll notice that Harris Norwood tops this list with nearly 15% lost kids. No School loses 15% in a year due to natural wastage and not in Year 11! So not content with fixing their intake at one end, they conveniently lose another group at the other. One doubts these kids were high fliers.

    Here’s the rub. Harris have no doubt lost some kids this year. But word about this carry on only appeared after Christmas. They may yet have some explaining to do.

    At some point the fiction of Academies improving kids chances is going to exposed. But it isn’t going to come from politicians but people on the ground.


  3. You’re correct, of course. The ways in which some large chains manipulate their figures are many and varied. Of course standalone academies do this too. But the cynicism with which some large chains both (a) remove their less able students from the picture while (b) claiming they’ve found the philosopher’s stone of how to raise achievement for the less able, is truly breathtaking.


  4. I don’t want to come across as an academies supporter, but in fairness to evidence based research, you do realise Harris Crystal Palace was a former City Technology College (and a successful one at that) prior to becoming a sponsor-led academy? If you applied a before and after analysis I doubt there would be all that much difference in student composition prior to academisation and after. It has always had a fairly selective intake.


    • That’s ok, clownfoot. The point wasn’t to say that they’ve changed the school, per se, although they do try to change the intake of their schools, because despite all the guff they know that the only chance of significantly altering the results is to change the intake. It’s more that Harris like to promote themselves as doing astounding things with disadvantaged students (and indeed, that was the thrust of the Gove article which prompted this piece). My argument merely shows that where they’re achieving genuinely very high results, it’s not because of any Harris magic, but because of a relatively able and advantaged intake. There’s no magic to Harris. It’s just a chain of schools getting similar (non-equivalent qualification) results that other non-Harris schools with similar intakes get elsewhere. Yet because they’re so well-connected with the politico-media mob, they get lauded as the model for the rest of us to follow. But actually, their model is (a) pretty terrible for staff, and (b) has no particularly significant impact on students. Essentially, they’ve just found a way of delivering the same thing as other schools but with less local accountability, poorer working conditions, and a whopping great big pay packet for the chief exec and a fair few cronies.


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