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Gove’s ‘hero’ academy trust founder switches to Labour

The Conservative donor and academy trust founder described by Michael Gove as his “hero” for “saving schools” has switched to Labour, saying they are now the “party for people who care about education”.

Lord Harris, who founded the Harris Federation academy trust which has become somewhat of a flagbearer for Gove’s reforms, said the Conservatives are “no longer the party of high and rising standards” and “out of ideas”.

Writing in the Times newspaper, he said academies have been “a central part” of delivering high standards, evidence-led practice and focusing on outcomes.

Phillipson ‘gets teaching’

But he said “it is no longer the Conservatives who are the party of high and rising standards, putting our children and their schools front and centre. Despite a merry-go-round of ministers in recent years, they are out of ideas.

“I have watched with admiration as Sir Keir Starmer and Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s impressive education spokeswoman, have set out Labour’s stall.

“She gets teaching, knows that expanding and improving the teacher workforce and tackling the epidemic of mental ill health among our young people are both vital, and will focus on making schools better, not fiddling with how well-run schools are operating.

“At this election the party for people who care about education is, as it was a quarter of a century back, Labour. The torch of change has passed.”

The comments will be a blow to the Conservatives who regularly cite their record on education in national campaigning, referencing England’s rise in the international league tables.

Conservative ministers also cite Harris as a success story of their reforms.

Gove’s academy hero

In an article for the Guardian in 2014, then education secretary Gove said Harris had “earned hero status” as he has “done more to help working-class children than any Labour politician since Attlee and Bevan”.

Things like “strict discipline” and the trust being led by “traditionalist teachers” had led to “near-miraculous” results, Gove wrote.

Harris is regularly at the top of the table for attainment among the biggest trusts which take on failing schools.

Of its 54 schools that have now been inspected, all are either ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ – with the majority getting the top grade.

In 2019, its first ever school was rated below ‘good’ by Ofsted. Inspectors found pupils were being entered into “inappropriate” qualifications.

Labour has said little about its plans for academisation. But Harris referenced the party’s recruitment commitment – to deliver 6,500 new teachers – alongside its focus on mental health.

Harris chief executive Sir Dan Moynihan said last year that government must tackle the “stretched to hell” support services feeding into schools, which have left teachers doing “more and more with services that aren’t really our business”.

He estimated £500,000 of his budget was being used to support his most disadvantaged pupils – some of whom live in temporary housing riddled with damp and cockroaches.

Writing as part of Schools Week’s Sector’s manifesto series, Moynihan called for a “joined-up anti-poverty strategy”, alongside an “accelerated” programme to put mental health leads in every school.

Labour has been previously criticised by supporters of Gove’s reforms over pledges to introduce more skills to the curriculum.

But the party’s manifesto stated any curriculum change will “build on the success of ‘knowledge-rich syllabuses”.

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