A lesson on the future of Co-op schools

Anthony Murray: Why is it so important to see the development of co-operative trust schools? Mervyn Wilson: Education has been one of our core principles for over 160 years....

Anthony Murray: Why is it so important to see the development of co-operative trust schools?


Mervyn Wilson: Education has been one of our core principles for over 160 years. The changes now taking place in the education system in England provides an opportunity to enable young people, their parents, the staff at the schools and their local communities to become members of the co-operative, seeing our values put into practice for the benefit of learners and their communities — the best way of learning about co-operation is by being part of one.


AM: What is a co-operative trust school?

MW: A trust school is a new kind of school the Government is encouraging as part of its objective of raising achievement and bringing about a greater diversity in education. In legal terms it is a foundation school that is supported by a charitable trust. The trust brings together a number of partners committed to work with the school in the long term.


AM: Can you explain more about what a foundation school is?

MW: Foundation schools have been part of our education for centuries. The term derives from the wishes of the founders, often charitable institutions or church based bodies. A foundation school is part of the state education system and part of the local authority family of schools. It differs in that the land and assets are held by the trust and the governing body is the employer and responsible for student admissions. There are no significant changes in the way the school is funded, but by being part of the trust there are new opportunities to access charitable and other sources of finance. The essential difference is the commitment of partners to work with the school in the long term. Trusts will also strengthen governing bodies by appointing governors.


AM: Why is it important for the Co-operative Movement to be involved in trust schools?

MW: The reason we want to see co-operatives engage with trust schools is this ability to develop long term relationships. Many co-operative societies made links with schools over the past two or three decades with a range of imaginative schemes. However, many are based on links with individual teachers or short term projects, and while these bring fun and challenging activities they frequently fail to create lasting impact on the schools.

From the work with the Co-operative Group and the network of Business and Enterprise Colleges they have sponsored, we know that it is possible to embed the co-operative values driven ethos across the school and curriculum, but even there, the Business and Enterprise designation initially lasts for just four years, and after that it is possible for schools to take a different direction.

We recognised the potential to lock a values driven ethos into schools in the long term. One of the key aspects of the trust is that it not only holds the land and assets on behalf of the community, but also its ethos. We see a national network of schools sharing Co-op values driven and global perspective as a critical contribution to bringing about greater diversity in education provision. In a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, being values driven, but faith neutral is an extremely attractive contribution to social cohesion and an important balance to the massive growth we have seen in recent years of faith based schools, where many see the dangers of such schools simply reinforcing divisions in society.


AM: What are the distinct characteristics of the co-operative schools model?

MW: Trusts link a series of partners committed to the benefit of the school in the longer term. Typically these include a higher education institution, often a local further education college, a major employer, such as the local primary care trust etc. Many trusts are now becoming multi-school trusts, either a cluster of secondary schools who see the benefits of working closely together. We saw the danger of the usual model of a trust, which would look at the long term strategic issues, becoming remote from key stakeholder groups, particularly parents, staff, learners and many of the small local community organisations who are not to be strategic partners of the trust.

We have created a model that is membership based, providing a mechanism whereby these stakeholder groups can become members of the trust, and in turn elect members to a forum, that can be a strategic sounding voice for the trust, and provide a method of accountability.In addition the forum will elect trustees. In this way the model will ensure that, alongside the trustees elected by the partners, there will be trustees directly accountable to key stakeholder groups.

The model essentially builds on those developed through other parts of public sector reform, particularly the leisure trusts and foundation hospital trusts.


AM: Why is the stakeholder engagement so important?

MW: At all points, the overriding aim of a trust is to help bring about transformational change in education, ensuring young people are equipped with the skills so essential in a global 21st century society.

Research has shown that the most important single lever to improve expectations and attainment is parental involvement, but in many of the challenging areas where we are working with schools, areas where traditional manufacturing and extractive industries have disappeared, parental engagement is difficult to achieve.

Just as we know about the successes of getting member involvement when local authority housing has been transferred to housing co-operatives, we are convinced that in the long term we can bring about new levels of parental engagement through membership.

Another of the important characteristics is that member engagement will not be segmented in the way it currently is at nursery, infant, primary and secondary levels. Parents will be able to engage in an overview of their child’s education throughout their life through the trust. The mechanism provides a powerful way to engage communities in the education provision in their communities. In addition, studies elsewhere, including experience in Spain and North America, show the importance of staff being seen as central stakeholders in the process. What better way is there for young people to learn about active citizenship than through direct participation in the running of a major co-operative and social enterprise — their school?


AM: How was the model developed?

MW: The model evolved through a strong partnership between Mutuo, that has done so much work in promoting ideas of new mutuals in the public sector, Cobbetts which provided the legal expertise and led in the discussions with the Department for Children, Schools and Families as we have worked with two schools under the Trust Pathfinder Programme, a programme designed to develop new models for trusts, and the Co-operative Group and College. The Co-operative Group shared our vision to embed the achievements made through the work with the Business and Enterprise Colleges, and quickly saw the potential to develop a new part of the co-operative sector — co-operative schools. Support has been outstanding at every level.


AM: Is this initiative just supported by the Co-op Group?

MW: No, the potential of co-operative trusts has been quickly recognised by many societies. Chelmsford Star will be a partner in one of the next trusts to become a legal entity in Thurrock, and its Chief Executive, Tony Gudgeon and the Board of the Society have been immensely supportive. We are working with a school in Telford, which we expect to become the first multi-school trust next spring.

Here Midcounties has given active support, sponsoring the school in its bid to become a Business and Enterprise College, and now they are ready to be a partner in the new trust. Doug Fletcher, Chief Executive of the Plymouth & South West Society, has been a terrific supporter of a potential multi-school cluster. In addition many other consumer societies have expressed interest, together with co-operatives from other sectors — some of the larger worker co-operatives, housing co-operatives and social enterprises have already contacted us saying they are prepared to become involved if a school in their area wishes to apply.


AM: What kind of financial commitment is expected of co-operatives to become a partner in a trust?

MW: There is no financial commitment. The commitment is about becoming a long term partner and working with the school or group of schools to raise achievement. We have always said the co-operative model can work perfectly well without a co-operative partner.

The advantage of having a partner is it brings someone into the trust with experience of the mechanics of making a co-operative work, can advise on those aspects and also bring about important employer links and a business perspective.

Remember in the case of schools we are talking about serious scale social enterprises. A large secondary school may have a budget of £5-7 million and employ upwards of 200 people. At Reddish Vale in Stockport, the trust has initiated a range of proposals for subsidiary co-ops that put young people at the heart of running community, social and leisure activities. It is the added value expertise that trust schools are looking for, not cash.

AM: You have previously said you are confident of seeing the Government’s target of over 100 trusts over two years met, where does that confidence stem from?

MW: Wherever we have made presentations about the co-operative trust model we have always been astounded by how many people respond so positively to the values driven perspective of co-ops. One school mapped its values to Co-op ones, and was amazed at the correlation.

Where schools are committed to transforming achievement, they see self-help and self-responsibility at the heart of it. In addressing inclusion, equality and equity are fundamental, and if citizenship is going to mean anything, democracy and solidarity, giving a global perspective, will also resonate.

As a result we are already working with schools from Cornwall to Northumberland, and that was before the recent announcement and any major marketing effort. Put simply, our values, ethics and global perspective all resonate with schools.


AM: You referred to creating a national network, why do you see that as so important?

MW: We have seen the enormous benefits from the network of Business and Enterprise Colleges, where a geographically dispersed network of schools, sharing an ethos and specialism have really benefitted from working together. We have looked at how similar support structures work where there is a much stronger tradition of co-operative schools in Spain, and believe that in the longer term we will see similar networks developing in this country, both at regional and national level.

These networks will develop shared services and a voice to Government at local, regional and national levels. As the first stage, we are bringing representatives from over 40 of the schools we are working with together, and will then start exploring how we develop this into a national network.


AM: What would you finally say to those that are sceptical about such reforms, and believe that education should be left to the state?

MW: Really just two things: one, to recognise that the 2006 Education Inspections Act was passed with all party approval. It sees the fundamental transformation of the role of the Local Authority from being the provider of education services to the commissioner of education services from a wide variety of organisations, particularly trusts.

This is an opportunity not a threat. We now have an opportunity to show the benefit of the co-operative model, and put values into practice. It is not opting out of the state system it is just a different way of delivering it.

Secondly, from a co-operative perspective — look back at our co-operative principles and what it says about education. It talks about educating the wider public, and young people in particular about co-operation. What way of doing that than by giving young people the opportunity to be directly engaged in running a co-operative at their school and reinforcing that by a whole series of experiences of co-operation throughout the curriculum, including running co-operative enterprises under the Young Co-operatives umbrella.

Finally, just think how our Movement can be reinvigorated if, in years to come, thousands of people are leaving school each year having spent the whole of their school lives in co-op schools, putting values into practice, and wanting to work for organisations that share those values.

Case studies 

Here are three case studies of schools that have embraced co-operative values:

Campsmount Technology College and Community Partnership Trust

Campsmount College is located north of Doncaster and serves the ex-mining communities of Askern, Campsall and Norton. The community has struggled to recover from the devastating impact of the closure of the pit, the dominant employer, in the 80s. This resulted in over 65% male unemployment at the time. Unemployment remains well above the national average, and the schools last OFSTED Report indicates other characteristics of deprivation, a higher than average proportion of students eligible for free school meals and higher than average proportion of students with special educational needs.

Campsmount Technology College and the Community Partnership Trust are clear about why they want to become a trust. Their vision is ‘Raising aspirations, raising achievement’. The trust involves Doncaster College, the Co-operative College, North Doncaster Rural Trust and Leeds Metropolitan University and is devoted ‘to raising community aspirations through valuing education and training, embedding a lifelong learning ethos and actively promoting regeneration in the community.

Campsmount is now in its final legal consultation stages and are expected to become a co-operative trust later this year.

Headteacher Andy Sprakes commented: “Campsmount has improved significantly over the past few years and I see the establishment of a Co-operative Trust as the next progressive stage in our development.  The Trust will ensure that the community, learners and other stakeholders have a key strategic role in the development of learning opportunities and service provision that will impact on educational standards and improve life chances across the community.”

Sutherland Business and Enterprise College

Sutherland Business and Enterprise College in Telford is a small but growing secondary school, with just over 600 pupils. The school is in a challenging area, with OFSTED describing it as ‘having a higher than average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals, attainment on entry below average, and the proportion of pupils with learning difficulties above the national average’. 

In 2007 the school successfully applied to become a Specialist Business and Enterprise College, with Midcounties Co-operative Society as its main sponsor. It is now an active participant in the network of co-operative Business and Enterprise Colleges. Head Teacher Steve Wall is currently encouraging a cluster of at least eight schools, possibly more to become involved in a co-operative trust.

Reddish Vale Co-operative Trust

Reddish Vale Technology College is the first school in England to become a co-operative trust, with the Reddish Vale Co-operative Trust established in March 2008. 

It is a large secondary school, with nearly 1,400 learners. OFSTED describes it as serving an area of relative disadvantage, and like Campsmount, the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals and those with learning difficulties and disabilities is higher than the national average.

The Reddish Vale consultation document emphasised its tradition of embracing innovation and change stating ‘in 1995 we were one of the first schools to become a specialist school. We now want to become one of the first to become part of a co-operative trust’. It added, ‘the co-operative trust will give us a stable platform on which to build partnerships and continue to develop to meet the changing needs of our local communities’. 

Phil Arnold, Director of Schools Improvement, said: “Working with our partners we are keen to pursue new capital funding to complement our BSF plans and seek ways to engage young people through social enterprise. The ‘My Place’ programme, for example, has offered young people hands on opportunities to develop and manage a youth co-operative. They have come together through membership of the trust to bid to deliver sport, leisure, information advice & guidance and a safe place to be in the heart of their community. Their bid “Our Space” has a co-operative enterprise — run by young people for young people — as its centrepiece”.


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