Inspiring the next generation of co-operators through education

The growth of co-operative schools across England has been one of the movement’s success stories of recent years. The News asked Mervyn Wilson, principal of the Co-operative College, to...

The growth of co-operative schools across England has been one of the movement’s success stories of recent years. The News asked Mervyn Wilson, principal of the Co-operative College, to remind us how this development came about, and future expectations.

In 2003, the Co-operative College worked with advocacy organisation Mutuo and CfBT, an educational charity, to explore the possibilities for co-operative and mutual models in a rapidly changing education system. The result was the publication of

Co-operation and Learning, which was launched at the House of Commons by then education and skills secretary Charles Clarke and explored the potential for new mutuals using the freedoms available under the 2000 Education Act.

It included a chapter on running schools as co-operatives and used case studies from Sweden, Spain, Canada and the United States to demonstrate “the success of co-operative schools in securing commitment from a range of stakeholder groups in achieving high standards”. The chapter concluded that just small steps were needed from government to enable co-operative schools to emerge in the UK.

Co-operation and Learning was soon followed by a major initiative from the Co-operative Group which involved sponsorship of 10 secondary schools specialising in business and enterprise. The College was commissioned to work with the schools, located from Devon to Northumberland, to develop learning resources to help embed co-operation in the curriculum and to build an effective network.

The most significant aspect of the initiative was how the network of co-operative Business & Enterprise Colleges worked together on schools improvement. Dave Boston, now Chief Executive of the Schools Co-operative Society (SCS), was at the time head teacher of Sir Thomas Boughey Co-operative Business & Enterprise College and remembers the time well.

“Because the schools shared values and were removed from the competitive pressures of neighbouring schools, they were willing to share ideas and experience,” he says. “With the constant pressure on league tables and performance my school was concerned that our progress was being impeded by poorer results than we expected in one key subject. I stated this at one of the heads network meetings, and immediately others said why don’t you come to see what we are doing. The result was that we quickly identified the issues, leading to the best results the school had ever achieved.”

Ofsted reports also recognised the progress that co-operative schools were making and the impact of the values – but specialism was a policy initiative constantly changing and the College realised schools needed a way to embed co-operation and an ethos based on co-operative values in the long term. That opportunity came through the 2006 Education and Inspection Act that enabled schools to become foundation schools (similar in legal status to church schools) and establish a trust that, like the diocese in faith schools, would safeguard the ethos of the school, its land and its assets.

The College worked with a number of schools to develop a co-operative trust model under a Pathfinder programme. Cliff Mills, one of the UK’s leading co-operative lawyers, played a key part in that process, drafting the first constitution for a co-operative trust. “We quickly realised the potential for a multi-stakeholder model that gave a real voice in the governance of trusts to parents and carers, staff, learners and the local community,” he recalls. “This was in stark contrast to the ‘standard’ trust model, which gave these groups no voice at all.”

Reddish Vale Technology College in Stockport became the first school to convert to a trust using the co-operative model in March 2008 and, as the government introduced a Supported Schools Programme to help schools through the process of conversion, more followed. By the end of 2009, 36 schools had become co-operative trust schools; by the 2010 general election, numbers had grown to 105.

The new administration’s priority was to promote academies. The College responded by working with solicitors to develop a co-operative model for converter academies – high performing schools that wished to become academies. But the 2006 Act remained in place and the trust model became more popular. Sean Rogers, the College lead on co-operative schools, believes that the reasons for this is that “following the election, more schools understood that the local authorities’ role in education was changing. Many had good collaborative arrangements in place, and to them a co-operative trust, with its values and democratic engagement, was the obvious way to maintain such arrangements. They saw mutual support as a better way of securing lasting schools improvement than the hostile takeover model favoured by the government in its promotion of academy chains.”

What followed was what many have described as a quiet revolution. The Supported Schools Programme ended, meaning no funding was available for schools converting to trusts, while financial incentives were given to schools converting to the government’s preferred academy model. This was highlighted by shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan in a recent House of Commons adjournment debate, where he contrasted the resources put into the government’s flagship policy of free schools with the very few resources devoted to helping co-operative schools develop. He pointed out that “in relation to actual delivery and policy it would be good to see more resources within the department being devoted to co-operative schools, since the secretary of state has made it so clear that he is powerfully in favour of their development”.

In reality, the astonishing growth in co-operative schools has been achieved without funding or other support from the government. Growth happened despite a challenging policy environment and the pressure placed on those schools needing support to be taken over by sponsor academy chains, with no recognition of the power of co-operative models in transforming achievement.

Yet despite the lack of recognition, there is growing evidence of the positive impact of co-operative schools. In October 2013, Steve Baker, Conservative MP for Wycombe, called an adjournment debate on co-operative education as he wanted to highlight the remarkable progress of Cressex Community School in his constituency. Cressex was a high risk and low achieving National Challenge school that became one of the first Co-operative National Challenge Trusts.

Mr Baker highlighted the challenges the school had faced, including the fact that “nearly half of Cressex’s students live on estates that are among the most economically disadvantaged in England, where there is entrenched poverty and low skills. The proportion of children living in overcrowded households exceeds the national average. More than half the students have been eligible for free school meals … 80% of the school’s pupils are from ethnic minorities and the school now receives increasing numbers of students from eastern Europe.”

Mr Baker went on to demonstrate the remarkable impact the trust on the school, with record GCSE results in 2013, and how the co-operative values resonated locally.

“The community’s values were naturally aligned to those of the co-operative movement, and particularly the notion of being values-driven and faith-neutral, which in my constituency is highly relevant,” he added.

While the education sector trade unions were initially deeply suspicious of changes to the education system, dialogue helped build trust, leading to an agreement between the SCS, the Co-operative College and all the

TUC-affiliated education sector trade unions this autumn. The agreement highlights the shared values of the respective movements and a commitment to democratic engagement and accountability.

Today the co-operative model is being adapted to meet the wider needs of different schools. In Plymouth, the Primary Heads Association established a co-operative community interest company to deliver a range of services locally and regionally with a strong emphasis on schools improvement. Elsewhere in Devon, 10 special schools have formed a co-operative shared trust, embedding a highly regarded SEN support structure.

A recent Ofsted report on one of the schools in the Brigshaw Trust in Leeds highlighted the support provided via the trust, stating that the school is “part of a collaborative trust comprising several local primary schools and the local high school. Collectively they are providing some effective leadership teaching and learning and assessment support, advice and guidance, which is helping to accelerate the schools’ improvement. By pooling resources they have made a number of joint appointments, including literacy and numeracy strategy leaders to embed excellent practice across the trust to boost pupils’ achievements.”

In 2011 the growing network of co-operative schools established the Schools Co-operative Society as an apex for co-operative schools, providing a voice in the policy debate and an opportunity to jointly procure and share services. It is rapidly developing its regional structure and prioritising support on schools improvement.

SCS has recently become an academy sponsor, with its first academy, Beaufort, in Gloucestershire, opening this autumn. Dave Boston believes that schools have adopted the co-operative model because they “passionately believe in co-operative values and the idea of working together to secure lasting improvement. Much of that support can come locally through strong co-operative clusters, and we are now looking to see how SCS can help broker support on a regional basis and through specialist networks.

"We have also become an academy sponsor to provide an additional layer of support, helping build a rich diversity of co-operative models, all committed to working together and sharing experience. We are determined to prove that you can have a bottom-up co-operative network that is every bit as effective as a top-down command and control chain.”

So where will the co-operative sector be in five years’ time? Mr Boston believes that it depends on what happens with government policy after the next election, with nearly half of secondary schools and over 80% of primary schools yet to make decisions on their long term structural form. “If co-operative schools received a fraction of the funding that has been made available to the models the government is committed to, we can quickly develop an effective national network.”

The growth of co-operative schools is a success story that in many ways parallels the rapid development of the consumer co-operatives in the mid to late 19th century. Both succeeded not from large resources for marketing, but through viral marketing as co-operators spread the message. Today’s growth is the result of schools and teachers talking to each other about the model and its success and the effective support package to take them through the complex conversion processes provided by the College. With numbers expected to top 700 at the turn of the year there is every prospect of over 1,000 co-operative schools by the 2015 general election.

The recent adjournment debate demonstrated the breadth of all-party support for all co-operative schools. What is needed now is for those warm words to be converted into practical support. The challenge now is to help embed the co-operative ethos across the schools and get the networking and co-operative support working effectively. The prize is future generations of school leavers who have learned and practised co-operation in their school life – and are ready to play an active role in the movement.

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