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Co-operative Schools – A quiet revolution

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On March 5th, the University is hosting an event for Head Teachers on Co-operative education, particularly on how the Co-operative Trust School model can provide a welcome solution to schools searching for a positive direction in a highly volatile period for education. In this article Mervyn Wilson, Principal of the Co-operative College, outlines the Co-operative Trust model and explains how it is making a difference to over 800 schools across the country.

Four hands linking togetherA quiet revolution is how Kevin Brennan, Shadow Schools Minister, described the rapid growth of co-operative schools when speaking in an adjournment debate called by Steve Baker, Conservative MP for High Wycombe on Co-operatives in Education. Kevin Brennan emphasised that ‘The Labour frontbench is strongly supportive of the rapid development and spread of co-operative schools that has happened in recent years’. He went on to contrast the enormous resources that had gone into the Government’s flagship free schools policy, citing that over 100 civil servants are engaged on it, with ‘very little in the way of resources that are devoted to helping co-operative schools to develop’.

It is worth reflecting on this quiet little revolution and why, in the face of the acceleration of the forced academisation strategy, the number of co-operative schools has almost doubled in the past year with numbers topping 800 by the end of January 2015.

Co-operative schools followed the 2006 Education and Inspections Act. With the support of the then Schools Minister, Jim Knight, the Co-operative College, a long established educational charity based in Manchester, worked with a number of schools to develop a multi-stakeholder co-operative model. A co-operative trust gives parents/carers, staff, learners and the local community a direct engagement in the governance of the trust through membership, alongside institutional partners, typically drawn from the Higher Education and public sectors, often including the local authority. For example, Canterbury Christ Church University is looking to partner a number of trusts in Kent and is now working with the Co-operative College to raise awareness of the model more widely.

Geographically-based shared trusts have proved particularly attractive in rural areas, often building on well-establish collaborative clusters, providing a legal framework through which deeper collaboration can develop. Many of the co-operative trusts established over the last 12 months are clusters of primary schools, providing a legal framework for existing collaborative arrangements, sharing responsibility for working with all schools in the trust. ‘We are all in this together; mutually we are stronger’, are typical of the reasons given by school leaders for adopting the co-operative model. There is also clear recognition that working co-operatively helps avoid duplication and distraction, allowing school leaders to better focus on the effective leadership of teaching and learning. It also recognises that all schools have strengths as well as weaknesses and a range of development needs, and have much to learn from each other.

Co-operative trusts have been effective in engaging other strategic partners. In the Commons debate Steve Baker highlighted the progress made at Cressex Community School in High Wycombe. This was one of a small number of National Challenge Trusts using a co-operative model established under the last Government. Its partner organisations include Wycombe Abbey Girls School, one of the highest performing independent girls schools in the country. Working in a challenging area with a high proportion of learners drawn from ethnic minorities, the school has transformed achievement, with record results in 2013.

Steve Baker highlighted the importance of values: ‘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.’ At the heart of co-operative trusts is the concept of school improvement through co-operation. In the West Midlands, the Wednesbury Trust, one of the country’s earliest co-operative trusts, has established its own teaching school alliance. Its focus on improvement is shared by more and more trusts. In Staffordshire around 40 co-operative schools have combined to develop and strengthen their schools’ improvement and teaching and learning capacity. With a number of outstanding schools and local leaders of education (LLEs) within the group they are exploring the development of a sub-regional teaching schools alliance. In Leeds co-operative schools have established the Leeds Co-operative Schools Network to ‘deepen, extend and enhance its role in the mutual support and development of member schools’.

The Co-operative model offers an important antidote to the top-down approach that comes from government; Jon O Connor, the Co-operative College’s Regional Schools Manager for the South East has rightly said that ‘the co-operative school improvement model is very different from the strong school led model often put forward as part of the sponsor academy agenda. Co-operative trusts are the opposite of the hostile takeover model that many view the forced academisation programme to be. It is not about ‘doing to’, the perceived strong school dictating to the perceived weak school. Rather it is about ‘working with’, recognising the school being supported has strengths and weaknesses, as indeed generally so will the supporting schools.’

Increasingly schools improvement is becoming a priority of the national network of co-operative schools, the Schools Co-operative Society. Dave Boston, Chief Executive of the Schools Co-operative Society has commented that ‘one of the greatest strengths of the growing network of co-operative schools is its diversity. They 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.’

The co-operative schools model fits well with the main conclusions and recommendations of the House of Commons Education Committee Report on School Partnerships and Co-operation. It emphasised the importance of a diversity of models of collaboration stating ‘Schools should be able to adopt models of partnership and co-operation that suit their needs within a legislative and policy framework that is as non-prescriptive as possible’. The report called for a more level playing field, stating ‘We are concerned that the existing funding incentives are concentrated too narrowly on the academy sponsorship route’.

The growth of co-operative schools is a remarkable achievement considering current Government policy. In replying to the adjournment debate the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education, Edward Timpson, stated that his ‘strong message of support on behalf of Government demonstrates our desire to see a diversity in the education system that meets the need of individual communities’. He also talked about how the Government was ‘doing nothing to prevent schools from starting to form trust and relationships’.

That is a long way from a level playing field.  He stated ‘We do not however have anything to fear from co-operatives’, but just think what size and scale co-operative schools could achieve if they received the sort of funding that had been given to Free schools, or if the financial incentives to becoming a co-operative school were on a par with that of the academy programme!

A version of this article appeared  first in the Journal of the Socialist Education Association.

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