The Co-operative Academies Trust: An educational partnership in the north of England

As the new academic year begins, Frank Norris, director of the Co-operative Academies Trust, celebrates the connection between the Trust and the Co-op Group… It is three years...

As the new academic year begins, Frank Norris, director of the Co-operative Academies Trust, celebrates the connection between the Trust and the Co-op Group

It is three years since I had the privilege of being appointed to run the Co-operative Academies Trust on behalf of the Co-op Group. In that time the Group has quietly become the largest business sponsor of academies in England and now oversees eight academies in some of the most diverse and economically disadvantaged areas in the north of England.

From the outset, I was fully aware of the Group’s long and proud tradition of supporting education in many guises – indeed that was one of the many attractions of the job. The organisation’s involvement with academies began in 2008 when it was asked, by the then-Labour government, to sponsor two newly built academies in Manchester and Stoke. Although I am totally opposed to the forced academisation of all schools, I do believe the academy model, which involves a supportive business partner, can bring benefits.

Frank Norris, director of the Co-operative Academies Trust
Frank Norris, director of the Co-operative Academies Trust

All the academies in Manchester, Leeds and Stoke that are now part of the Trust have experienced significant upheaval; most had a weak academic and Ofsted record before joining. My previous career as a senior HM inspector for Ofsted sharpened my eyes on the outcomes for teaching and learning and the importance of highly effective leadership and governance.

This has been the main focus, but the Co-op Group has offered our Trust and the academies so much more. The expertise offered freely by the Group in areas such as marketing, business development, IT, leadership and governance have been invaluable to the academies – but more important still is the way it has helped raise student and teacher aspirations by giving them an insight into the demands and requirements of the workplace. Ofsted has identified this in the most recent inspection reports that judge all but one of our academies as ‘good’ for their overall effectiveness.

The Trust runs at arm’s length to the Group, which allows it to make appropriate educational decisions without interference, thus ensuring there is no potential conflict of interest. One of the most important roles the Group plays is enhancing the quality of governance. Senior business colleagues are identified and placed onto the respective governing bodies. Importantly, this does not take place in the manner of a business takeover; on the contrary, there is a very high degree of empathy and support for existing structures and personnel.

However, this has brought to the academies not only a wealth of business experience, but also a consistent message about what robust ‘challenge’ in a co-operative environment looks like. The positive impact of governance in improving outcomes for students has been highlighted in all recent Ofsted inspection reports.

As I reflect on the Group’s involvement with the Trust’s academies over the past three years it would be wrong to give the impression it is just about providing governors and expertise from the business. It is so much more. For instance, this year the Group provided free access to the brilliant conference facilities at its Manchester support centre for a staff recognition event attended by over 180 colleagues. It was also the venue for the Trust’s highly regarded annual governor conference. Colleagues from the Group’s digital team supported a showing of ‘Digital for Girls’ and answered questions about their careers to the 150 girls invited from our Manchester academies.

More than 150 students took part in fortnight-long work experience programmes and members of the Co-op’s finance team offered full- day numeracy activities for Trust primary academies in Leeds. Richard Pennycook, CEO of the Co-operative Group, visited three of the Trust’s academies and took time to answer a testing question-and-answer session with 14 year olds at the Leeds secondary academy.

The Co-op Group, through the Trust, supports academies that are helping to regenerate communities – but it understands that this takes time and commitment.

We are all impatient for success but the Trust, through its unique relationship with the Group, has clearly demonstrated that it can make a real difference to the lives of thousands of students who have not always been dealt the best hand. I am proud of what has been achieved and look forward to what more can be accomplished in the future.

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