Over 200 educationists including representatives of 150 co-operative schools attended the recent fourth annual co-operative schools conference in Manchester.
The conference was opened by International Co-operative Alliance President Pauline Green, who said the sector had experienced “phenomenal growth” and is on course to be one of the most powerful influences in the Movement in the 21st century.
Urging delegates to work together to establish a critical mass of Co-op education, Dame Pauline said: “Co-operative education is the newest sector of the UK co-operative economy and it would be great to see co-operative education up there as one of the main sectors.
“I have watched the growth of co-operative education from 2008 and it has been phenomenal.”
Dame Pauline’s comments were echoed by Co-operative College Principal and Chief Executive Mervyn Wilson who stressed the importance of collaboration between schools and the potential benefits of involving more co-operative and mutual businesses in the project.
Highlighting the major changes that are taking place in education, Mr Wilson commented: “Co-operative schools offer the only alternative that really does have community accountability. Concern for the community differentiates us.
“This is about putting community back into community schools and, of course, we are much stronger when we work together.”
The theme of the conference was ‘Co-operative schools — where values matter’ and among the other speakers were Dave Boston, Chief Executive of the Schools Co-operative Society and Shadow Education Secretary and Labour/Co-op MP Stephen Twigg.
Dave Boston called on teachers to “seize the agenda” and work to establish the initiative in their own areas.
He said: “You have to take ownership of starting to develop networks in your area. Through co-operation we do a better job. We need to seize the agenda as teachers and our job is to help you do that so we can genuinely deal with things from the bottom up.”
One of the functions of the Schools Co-operative Society will be to offer procurement of services and school improvement and Mr Boston explained: “We want to develop an offer of quality services that avoid the men who come and knock on the door.”
Stephen Twigg declared himself a passionate advocate of co-operative schools and said the network offered “real freedom” and an alternative to what he termed “a top-down, centrist approach to education.”
He added: “There are too many gimmicks in education. School autonomy should be combined with a system based on collaboration, so head teachers, staff, governors, parents and pupils hold the levers of power. They are the true experts about what needs to happen in our schools and communities.”
Dr John Dunford, Chair of Whole Education, a partnership between leading educational institutions, focused on the debate about educational reforms and the changing curriculum, but also spoke of the opportunities to build an alternative.
He told delegates: “It’s a really exciting time to create a new narrative of education by working together — not just within your own trusts — but with the Co-operative Movement as a whole.”
Dr Patrick Roach, Deputy General Secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT, embraced the prospect of enhanced partnership and collaboration between schools and their communities and commented: “A co-operative alternative has the potential to redefine academies in a more inclusive, democratic and accountable way in which unions are part of the solution and not the problem.”
John Chowcat, General Secretary of Aspect, the union for children’s services professionals, agreed that the co-operative schools movement has tremendous potential and called for an approach to school improvement that “is sustainable and works”.
Chris Fabby, National Officer, UNISON, added his congratulations on “the energy and drive behind the co-operative schools movement” and said “the growth in co-operative schools really had been very impressive”.
Mr Fabby said he was proud that UNISON had signed a national framework agreement with the Schools Co-operative Society to protect the terms and conditions of school support workers.
Mags Bradbury, National Projects Manager at the Co-operative Group, told the News: “The Schools Co-operative Society conference was a great opportunity for co-operative schools to come together and discuss how they build the co-operative schools movement.
“It was fantastic to see so many schools attending and sharing their stories on how co-operative values and principles are making an impact on their schools.”