Movement promises a bright future for education

Five years on from the launch of England’s first co-operative trust school, Mervyn Wilson, Principal and Chief Executive of the Co-operative College, looks forward to further growth in the...

Five years on from the launch of England’s first co-operative trust school, Mervyn Wilson, Principal and Chief Executive of the Co-operative College, looks forward to further growth in the sector . . .

In March 2008, Reddish Vale Technology College in Stockport became the first co-operative trust school in England. The school had worked with the Co-operative College to develop a co-operative model for foundation schools with a trust following the adoption of the 2006 Education & Inspections Act.

The five years since Reddish Vale adopted the model have seen a change of government and significant changes in education policy.

In his 2008 speech about Reddish Vale, David Cameron said: “I want to explore how we can create a new generation of co-operative schools in Britain, funded by the taxpayer, but owned by parents and the local community.”

But the reality of the Government’s education policy has been very different. Despite all-party support for the 2006 Act which introduced trust schools, one of the first acts of the new administration was to stop the Supported Schools Programme which helped schools become trust schools.

Instead, the nature of academies was redefined and this was made the centrepiece of education policy.

Academies were introduced by the previous administration to transform underachieving schools in challenging areas through sponsor academies, with the sponsor accountable for performance. Coalition policy is for all schools to become academies, with high-performing schools encouraged to convert to academy status. This effectively severs the relationship with the local authority and sees them directly funded by the Department for Education.

At the same time, the Government pressed forward with its equally controversial policy on free schools. Instead of a new generation of parent-owned co-operatives, it resulted in further expansion of faith-based provision and the academy chains, with just one of the free schools approved to date expected to operate as a co-operative.

And yet, in this apparently hostile policy environment, co-operative schools have continued to flourish. In September 2010, months after the Coalition was elected, there were 105 co-operative schools. Numbers rose to 159 a year later, and 338 by September 2012.

When Meg Munn, Labour & Co-operative MP for Sheffield Heeley, introduces her Co-operative Schools Bill under the Ten Minute Rule on 17th April, there will be more than 450
co-operative schools operating in England.

This represents a co-operative response to the break-up of the education system, seen by many as a stage in its privatisation. The attraction of the co-operative model is that it enables schools and governing bodies to safeguard their values and community links. Most trusts comprise groups of schools working together with key stakeholders for the benefit of their local communities. Often, such shared trusts provide a legal framework for existing collaborative partnerships.

Peter Laurence, development director of the Brigshaw Co-operative Trust in Leeds, said: “We could all see the direction of travel of Government policy and, to us, self-help was a natural solution.

“We had already developed good practice in working together to support vulnerable children and families, and we are now working as a co-operative to support school improvement and a wider range of opportunities across our partnership for the benefit of young people.”

Pat McGovern, head teacher at Helston Community College and one of the key drivers of the 18-strong Helston and Lizard Peninsula Education Partnership Trust, said: “There is a strong sense of community in Cornwall, and it is natural for us to think of how we do things ourselves through shared action.

“The last thing the people of Cornwall want to see is a big education chain coming in to run school services and take money out of the area. That money is best kept serving the local economy and local community. Our co-operative is about a mutual solution to local needs.”

Co-operative schools are gaining support from key education sector trade unions. In 2012 the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) signed a landmark agreement with the Schools Co-operative Society (SCS), a national organisation which is the country’s fastest growing schools network. This follows a recent similar SCS agreement with UNISON.

NASUWT Deputy General Secretary Patrick Roach said: “The SCS and NASUWT share a fundamental commitment to public education that is democratically accountable and which operates in the public interest. We recognise the critical importance of ensuring that our members are the drivers of education reform, not merely delivery agencies.

“Our member focus means that it is in our collective interest and the interest of individual schools and their pupils to promote the widest possible engagement of teachers in schools, giving teachers a stake in the schools where they work. Collaboration and co-operation is what teaching is all about.”

It is an approach that contrasts with the top-down managerialist approach adopted by the DfE, OFSTED and the sponsor academy chains. Their approach is to see the school system as failing and the solution as adopting coercive leadership, often accompanied by high exclusion rates.

Margaret Fretwell, Principal at Summerfields Primary Academy Barnsley, said: “We felt it important for the local community that we could provide a local solution. We knew the three existing schools in the trust had the strength to bring about the changes needed and, through the establishment of the Pioneer Academies Co-operative Trust, we have ensured that the community is at the heart of each of our schools.”

Dave Boston, Chief Executive of SCS, is clear on the need for an alternative approach. “It is ridiculous to say that the school system is failing at a time when results are rising year on year,” he said. “All research evidence shows that the best way of bringing about sustainable changes is through active engagement of key stakeholders, particularly parents. That is why the co-operative model is attractive to schools.”

The Bill that is being introduced on 17th April aims to build on the progress co-operative schools have made over the last five years. It asks that future education legislation makes provision for Industrial & Provident Societies alongside other organisational forms. At present, co-operative schools register as Companies Limited by Guarantee.

The Bill also seeks to remove the clause in the 2006 Act that prevents nursery schools becoming trust schools. In many ways, nursery schools are the most co-operative part of the education sector, with high levels of parental and family involvement, while the Early Years foundation status provides a co-operative approach to the curriculum.

Sean Rogers, Lead on Co-operative Trusts at the Co-operative College, said: “Many co-operative trusts have developed an all-through vision of education. We want to be able to capture the enthusiasm and passion for education that parents have, and bring it into the life of trusts.

“Enabling nursery schools to become full members of trusts would make a big difference.”

Few would have predicted five years ago the scale of the growth in co-operative schools – and Dave Boston is convinced there is much more to come.

“We are already starting to see the emergence of a new generation of co-operators – young people who have been actively involved in their co-operative school,” he said.

“As they move on into higher education and employment they maintain their passion for co-operation. We estimate there are already over 250,000 young people in co-operative schools – just think of the possibilities in a decade’s time.

“This is a real co-op success story that can help secure the future of the whole co-operative sector.”

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