Harris Academy named top performing school in Wandsworth

Harris Academy named top performing school in Wandsworth

Written by Julia Bright.
Wandsworth’s best performing schools based on GCSE results has been published by the government showing the Harris Academy in Battersea being the top performing state school in the borough. The borough has outperformed the national average for achievement, according to the statistics based on Attainment 8It measures the achievement of a pupil across eight qualifications, with mathematics and English given extra weight. Harris Academy Battersea, in Battersea Park Road, was Wandsworth’s top-performing state school with 59.8, closely followed by Graveney School, in Welham Road, at 58.5. Our reporter Julia Bright interviewed Lord Harris on Wandsworth Tonight about his life and here’s her feature which also has a glimpse into his new book “Magic Carpet Ride”.
“Magic Carpet Ride” is the just-published autobiography of retailing carpet magnate and philanthropist Lord (Phil) Harris of Peckham. Harris is probably best known for founding the Academy education model. His Harris Academies have a truly enviable record of turning round failed secondary schools into, often, outstanding schools. For instance, Harris Battersea Academy, previously Battersea Park School, is the 5 th most successful school in the country and third in London.
The funds for the philanthropic causes chosen by Harris and his wife Pauline all come from the profits of his carpet retailing career. In his book, written with his friend and award-winning journalist, Ivan Fallon, Harris confesses to getting “some of his best ideas” from Tooting Market. As a lad helping out at his Uncle Tom’s Tooting store he noticed that all year round there was a discount or an offer, “Tooting market was more competitive than anywhere else” he writes. Young Phil learnt that “price and value for money were paramount: “Get that wrong and it didn’t matter what else you did, you’d be out of business”. And throughout his business life Harris has stressed the essential component of “service” and going that extra mile for the customer.

From the start, as a teenager running his dad’s lino shops, these simple maxims plus his common sense and gift for maths helped him build up from scratch not just one but two hugely successful carpet companies, firstly Harris Carpets which became Harris Queensway and floated on the stock market in 1987, secondly Carpetright which, when he retired in 2014, was the biggest carpet retailer in the world. Harris, 75 this year, was born in Peckham and has always stayed close to his south London roots. Even now he and his wife, Pauline live just a few miles away in Orpington where they brought up their four children. They met when they were aged 14 and married eight years later. From the moment the Harris’s made any real money they vowed to give away 20% of their wealth to charities. To date, whether in direct funds (mostly Lord Harris) or through raising funds (mostly Lady Harris), they have donated around £200 million. Both believe that it’s just as important to become involved, physically and emotionally.

This without any self-promotion – it’s the charities they want to see written up in the media not themselves. Harris just likes to get on with it all and remain true to himself: a modest man with boundless energy. He is still “Phil” to most people. The first major charity they were involved in was Birthright, (now called Wellbeing for Women) which Princess Diana became Patron of and made her favourite charity. One of the earliest research breakthroughs was the diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome in pregnant women, helping to make tests more accurate. Another laid down the ground rules for safe laser treatment to treat cervical cancer. Altogether around £25 million enabled the building of five different Harris Birthright Centres.

In his book Harris reveals that the best job he ever had was chairman of Guy’s and Lewisham Hospital Trust which spearheaded Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s NHS plans to reform the Health Service. He was already involved with Guy’s having earlier funded Guy’s purchase of the first-ever MRI scanner in the country. Three years later and a few months before she lost office, Thatcher asked Harris to take the challenge of chairing the Trust. In the first two years costs were cut by 20 per cent, saving £20 million a year with 6,000 more patients treated. “It was a bold experiment”, he says, “opposed every inch of the way by unions, the Labour Party, and even some of the medical staff.” But he praises the managers and believes further time would have pushed the whole NHS forward and made a real difference,“Unfortunately nerves failed, politics intruded and the momentum was lost”.

There are many causes and charities the Harris’s have taken up – including the restoration of Westminster Abbey. But it it is education, in the form of the Harris Federation of Academy Schools that has been his main passion in the second part of his life. Harris is, in fact, dyslexic, unrecognised when he was at school – he passed just one “O” level, maths. He says he has never read a book but can compute figures with the speed of a calculator – and is gifted too with a great memory. Rather than school-work he excelled at sport, captaining both the cricket and football teams. An injury prevented him from turning professional but he has remained an ardent fan of Arsenal (where he ‘s been a director for the past twelve years). When, in 1989, Margaret Thatcher and her Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, asked Harris to sponsor a failing comprehensive school in Crystal Palace, he saw a great opportunity, took the challenge on, and transformed it into one of the first City Technical Colleges.

Within five years the pass rate had gone up from 9 per cent to 57 percent and Sylvan Grove School, renamed Harris City Academy Crystal Palace, won the most improved school in the country award When Labour got into government in 1991, the success of Harris’s first Academy was sufficient for it to persuade Harris to take on more failing comprehensives, such as Peckham in one of the most deprived areas in London based on the original model – all-ability free state comprehensives. Now there are 44 scattered around south London (including primaries) with a selective sixth-form college, Harris Westminster, which works in association with the famous public school of that name. The budget is £150 million a year with 30,000 children on its books. Lord Harris said in an interview recently in The Times: “It’s not where you come from that’s important, it’s where you’re heading”.

February 21st, 2018

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