Co-op Academies Trust wants to be a driving force in the co-operative schools movement

‘You can talk about the sophisticated things that make us different and the kids will pick these up’

With the Co-op Group becoming the largest sponsor of academies in the country, we spoke to the Russell Gill, head of co-operative relations at the Group and chair of the Co-operative Academies Trust, to find out more about the retailer’s plans for the future …

Earlier this year, the Trust announced it would expand from 12 to 40 schools in the next three years, growing to more than 40,000 students and 4,000 staff. The Co-op is putting a further £3.5m into the Co-op Academies Trust to kick-start the next growth phase.

How did the Group become a sponsor of academies? Mr Gill, who has been with the Group for 27 years, says the retailer has always carried out activities in partnership with local schools. His first day as a member relations officer in London was playing parachute games in a primary school in the East End.

“Mervyn Wilson, former principal of the Co-op College, was my boss at the time,” he recalls. In 2002 the government introduced Business and Enterprise Colleges, which enabled secondary schools to specialise in certain business fields.

In partnership with the College, the Group identified eight schools to sponsor.

“What that meant in practice was providing business students with opportunities using the co-op model and using some of the Co-op Group’s resources and expertise,” says Mr Gill.

“From the College’s point of view, that’s where the idea of co-operative trust schools was born and, indeed, some of the first co-operative trust schools came from that initial batch of schools.

“Within the Co-op Group, it showed us that having a direct and close relationship with individual schools, as opposed to the education sector in general, could be quite beneficial. We had a lot of resources and expertise that we could offer those schools and it was a rewarding experience.”

Russell Gill

In 2008 the Group, along with four other large businesses in Manchester, was approached by the council to see if it would jointly sponsor academies.

“The Group agreed to take on the worst school of the lot – Plant Hill in Blackley,” says Mr Gill. “At the time, it had the worst attendance of any school in England, appalling exam results and it was in a tumble-down building.”

The Group recruited a new principal, developed a new ethos rooted in co-operative values and principles, and worked with the council to  redevelop the site with a brand new building.

This marked the birth of the Co-op Academies, said Mr Gill, with the principal given a desk in new Century House to embed the school within the Group, and senior managers recruited as governors.

Its success attracted the government’s attention, spurring the Group to take on two more schools, in Stoke-on-Trent and in Leeds.

From there came the idea of growing a trust beyond just one school, says Mr Gill. The Group recruited professional team to drive school performance, culminating with the appointment of Frank Norris as trust director in 2013. Staff of Co-op Academies automatically become members of the Group to drive integration between the two.

Through the Academies, young people are introduced to the co-operative ethos through the Ways of Being Co-op toolkit.

“There is correlation between how we talk about co-op business and co-operation with 70,000 colleagues and what we do with 15,000 students,” says Mr Gill. “The Co-op primary school in Leeds was running assemblies on the meaning of the co-op values, such as solidarity, equity and equality. You can talk about the sophisticated things that make us different and the kids will pick these up.”

But the key to success is a strong focus on school performance. “The mistake made by some in the co-op movement was to believe that if you got the co-op values and principles then school improvement would follow,” says Mr Gill. “There were a number of trust schools that didn’t succeed in the way that some of our academies have. That success is part down to the work Frank and his team

have done, along with the fact that this has been twinned with very strong governance and a growing commitment from the Co-op Group.”

For a time, with the Group recovering from its financial crisis, the trust maintained a low profile but following his appointment as chief executive in 2017, Steve Murrells visited one of the academies and expressed his support. And last year the Group agreed to inject £3.5m to speed the trust’s growth.

The trust now has 18 academies, and this month welcomes another – Connell Sixth Form College, next to the Manchester City football ground.

“That will attract students from the five secondary schools we operate in Manchester and create a pipeline for apprenticeship opportunities for people to work within the Co-op and, hopefully, other jobs in the city as well,” says Mr Gill.

Every summer the Group has 150 young people aged 14 and 15 working in different parts of the business with mentor support.

And some pupils from Co-op Academies go on to do apprenticeships at the Group. One of them was 17-year old Jasmine Joynt, customer service apprentice for Co-op Insurance, who studied at the Co-operative Academy in Manchester. In 2018 she was named the Outstanding Intermediate Apprentice of the Year (Level 2) at the national RateMyApprenticeship awards.

From September, students at Connell can start courses that will include one day a week as a paid apprentice at the Group’s national support centre in Manchester. For the rest of the week they will study for a BTEC Level 3 qualification across a range of business areas.

“They can experience different parts of the Co-op business and think about what aspect of business they are interested in,” says Mr Gill.

“At a time when maintenance grants and other support have been withdrawn from young people who are in further education, it might help provide opportunities to some kids who otherwise would look for another option because of the financial pressure of studying. This adds up to quite an innovative and different approach – you will not find another sponsor of multi academy trust that does it quite the way we do it.”

The intention, he says, is to produce “alumni of young people who’ve been through our co-op schools and remember what co-operation means”. These could go on to become colleagues at the Group, member pioneers and even council members – forming “a new generation of co-operators”.

Last year the Group announced that Frank Norris was leaving the trust. It appointed Chris Tomlinson, regional director (secondary), for Harris Federation as its new as the new CEO.

While academies exist only in England, the Co-op’s approach to education could inspire other groups in Scotland and Wales, says Mr Gill. And curriculum resources around Co-operatives Fortnight could be shared with other schools.

Looking forwards, Mr Gill believes there will be a co-op schools movement. He notes that as the trust grows underpinned by the Group’s investment, it is leveraging significant government funding.

“By the time we reach 40 academies, it could mean £200m of government funding.

“The movement needs to think more creatively about how, by working with the public sector and government, it can unlock resources.”