‘A gateway to the movement’: Neil Calvert’s goals for the Co-op College

The new principal and CEO discusses the three-strand strategy

Neil Calvert has just taken over as CEO and principal of the Co-operative College. Previously vice chair of the governing council at the University of Derby, he has a wealth of experience in and beyond the classroom. 

With over 26 years’ experience in secondary education, he has worked at several highly successful schools in the East Midlands in senior roles, including headteacher. Mr Calvert has also served as expert advisor to headteacher appointment panels and given evidence to an Education Select Committee inquiry into school governance. In 2019, he was appointed as a trustee of the DHL UK Foundation, a national charity which operates and funds programmes to support the education and employability of disadvantaged young people.

Nevertheless, the move to the Co-operative College is, he concedes, a “steep learning curve” but also a challenge he is more than happy to meet.

“I was really keen to work in a slightly different part of the education sector and it was a very interesting opportunity. It was also a huge change for me, lots of learning and understanding how things fit together and about the history of the college and movement. However leading an educational organisation is what I have experience of and the values and principles of the co-op movement are related to my own. It felt like a good fit.“

Mr Calvert replaces John Chillcott, interim CEO, and Dr Cilla Ross, interim principal.

Neil Calvert

“The overarching feeling since I arrived has been very welcoming,” he said. “I have felt that from people within and connected to the College and more widely across the movement. It’s been great to get to meet the team. There are 14 of us, seven of whom were appointed this year. It is an incredibly good balance, colleagues based all over the country and we have gelled really well.” 

The biggest focus for the College is developing a new strategy, coalescing around three strands, he adds.

“Firstly, it is about working with existing co-ops and cooperators to empower and up-skill the College as a provider of learning activities for the movement itself.

“Secondly, it’s about inspiring co-operators of the future and that means getting us a little bit more involved in working with schools as well as a broader engagement beyond the movement.

“Thirdly, using co-operation to overcome disadvantage – and that is where a lot of our project work sits, working with the disadvantaged, those with learning difficulties and helping them in setting up co-operatives as well as international project work working with co-operators in the global south.”

The College is also starting to look at how it gets involved in thought leadership and “the big conversations”, says Mr Calvert. “Last week we hosted a webinar linked to COP26 with two speakers who had written a big ICA report about the green economy. We see that as being an area where we can grow, working with co-op educators elsewhere in the world.“

Post-COVID, many other things have changed – including the way the College operates, with all staff working remotely, maintaining a small office space in Holyoake House. “We are gradually going towards more face-to-face meetings with clients,” says Mr Calvert, “but will never go back to totally that. The future is hybrid and we will be working with clients to decide what mode of learning they want.”

Building links with existing educational institutions to provide accredited training is a key part of the College’s new strategy for growth. In January the College embarks on a new partnership with Imperial College London – with an adult and community education course about co-op values and principles, open to existing members of the movement but also the wider public. 

On the international side, adds Mr Calvert, the College is starting big project in Malawi, early next year, “working for one of the retail societies with farmers and growers to help them support and develop the co-op more effectively.“

Details of the new College strategy are still being developed and it is set to be published early in 2022. Meanwhile, the biggest challenge remains ensuring it is financially sustainable after a rocky few years. 

“It’s public knowledge that the College has struggled,” says Mr Calvert, “so moving to a financially sustainable model is a big challenge. In what we hope are the latter stages of COVID there are other practicalities – as there would be for any new leader, in any organisation, at this time.

Mr Calvert’s years of front-line classroom and senior management experience should be an invaluable asset. So what’s his take on the future of co-op education? 

“We much prefer to use the phrase ‘co-op learning’,” he says. “The word ‘education’ has such a transactional ring to it, but actually co-op learning has two separate facets. The first one is learning about co-operation – that typical space which the College is known for always having operated in – and there is still a role for that. But there is also the learning experience, which is not simply a transactional thing where the expert comes in and imparts knowledge.” 

He adds: “Learning through co-operation is a thing in itself and outcomes might well be determined by the learners themselves to achieve whatever solutions they are looking for. Some of the learning we will be doing is facilitating people who are already very experienced with a lot of skills. When you are working with experienced people you cannot always come in as an expert but you can be an expert in facilitating people to find their own solutions.

“My background was teaching computer science and one thing I learned very quickly was you would often be teaching people who know more than you do. In an age when everyone has access to the internet you have to recognise you do not know everything and are not the fount of all knowledge.“ 

Mr Calvert is hopeful that within a short period of time the College will emerge much stronger after a very difficult period. One early indicator of a rosier future is the good news of a £15,000 funding boost from Central England Co-operative.

“The partnership was not brand new but really has developed and we would like to see that as a model for working with other retail societies in the UK.“

There is also massive international potential, he adds, with the College recently agreeing to set up an equivalent to the College in the Philippines. “There is lots of potential to work with lots of partners supporting co-operative learners overseas and early signs are quite promising,” he says. 

“I hope the College will be seen as a gateway to the movement, operating more widely and bringing people in, espousing the values of the movement in an ambassadorial way as a force for real social impact and change. If we can achieve that via the three strands of our new strategy, the extent to which we are working in partnership with organisations will become much clearer, giving us the potential to have a much wider learning offer.”