Delegates at the Co-operative Education conference in Manchester on 29 April looked at the opportunities and threats posed by the government’s white paper on education.
The session was held before ministers backtracked on plans to force all schools to become academies by 2022. Co-operative schools enable stakeholders such as staff, parents and the community to have a say in their school and how it develops. There are more than 800 co-op schools across the country.
Trust schools are maintained schools supported by a charitable foundation or trust, which appoints some governors. Trusts can include a single school or more schools.
In the case of co-operative academies, schools can access additional freedoms and funding available for academies, but also build in co-op aspects such as giving a voice to key stakeholder groups.
Frank Norris, director of education for the Co-operative Academies Trust, talked about the eight academies forming the trust. The Co-op Group is the largest business sponsor of academies, he said, with all the schools performing well. When taken on, they were among the bottom 30 in the country.
But he does not believe that all co-operative schools are performing better than other schools.
“In our schools they know what the values are – but in other schools they don’t,” he said.
Tracey Downes, assistant principal at the Lipson Co-operative Academy, questioned the idea that co-op models delivered better results by default. “The number of co-op schools is vast,” she said. “Have we diluted the values so much by becoming so big so quickly?”
Co-operative schools also face challenges when it comes to recruiting co-operative leadership, she added. “Recruiting head teachers is difficult, recruiting head teachers for co-op schools is extremely difficult. What are co-op schools doing to bring in the next generation of leaders?”
Solving this problem would help protect the co-op identity, she said.
Bernadette Hunter shared her experience as head teacher at William Shrewsbury primary school, one of the eight schools in the Burton Co-operative Learning Trust.
We should be promoting what we can do, show schools that are showing the way forward, find partners that have same values and principles as yourselves
The school was an early adopter of the co-operative model in November 2011, acting in response to the 2010 white paper. They spent a lot of time researching different models before settling on the co-operative model.
Although one of the eight schools will convert into an academy, the trust intends to continue to work based on co-op values, using a formal legal collaboration agreement between all schools.
“We need to demonstrate to the government that there are other models that can work just as well as academies and don’t cost thousands to implement,” she added. “The co-op movement’s moment is now – we should be promoting what we can do, show schools that are showing the way forward, find partners that have same values and principles as yourselves.”
The session also heard from Jo Dennis, who is doing PhD research on co-op academy schools. She found that some schools are applying co-op values in a way that is “truly transformative” while other schools have no co-op ethos. The study shows a mixed picture, she added, as co-operative values were not necessarily helping to achieve a better performance.
Simon Parkinson, principal of the Co-operative College, said that in the past the organisation had focused on achieving scale.
“We are there,” he said. “Our strategic policy is now to increase quality, grabbing this momentum and making sure we’re there at the centre of this network.”