The rise and rise of co-op schools

Rochdale Pioneer Performance
A 'Rochdale Pioneer' performs for children at a local show.
Do co-operative schools (trust schools and academies) provide a democratic community based alternative? Mervyn Wilson, Principal of the Co-operative College – which has been at the heart of the development of co-operative schools - explains why co-operatives are proving so popular

The idea of co-operative schools has been around for a long time. Followers of Robert Owen (inspired by his work at New Lanark where young people were sent to school rather than working in the mills) formed co-operative schools in Salford, Wigan and elsewhere. As consumer co-operative societies flourished from the mid 19th century, some set up their own schools, which were later absorbed into the emerging state system.

Today, the education system in England is undergoing the most profound structural change since the passing of the 1944 Education Act. But this rapid growth of academies and academy chains is accompanied by concern about a growing democratic deficit, with the loss of local authority control and weakening of accountability to local stakeholders.

These developments in England follow a series of reforms that are fundamentally changing the very nature of the education system. Successive governments have substantially reduced the role of Local Authorities in education provision, since the groundbreaking introduction of delegated budgets to governing bodies ushered in by Local Management Of Schools (LMS) in 1988. The 2006 Education and Inspections Act was a key part of that process, stating that ‘going forward it shall be for schools, not LEAs to provide education directly.’ It envisaged much more formal collaboration between schools themselves by introducing Trust Schools to encourage strategic partners to work with schools and bring about a more diverse system.

Trust schools became foundation schools with a charitable trust. They remain maintained schools and part of the local authority family of schools. In many cases local authorities become partners in the Trust, formalising local ties. Land and assets transfer from the Local Authority to the Trust and the schools gain additional powers, becoming both the employer and admissions authority. The Co-operative College has now worked with a number of schools to develop a co-operative model for Trust schools, with the first, Reddish Vale in Stockport adopting the model in March 2008.

Co-operative schools share a number of key characteristics:
•    An ethos drawn from the globally shared co-operative values, recognised in the Trust constitution.
•    Governance mechanisms that directly engage key stakeholder groups – parents and carers, staff, learners and the local community through membership.
•    A curriculum and pedagogy that embraces co-operation, using the global co-operative sector as a learning resource and drawing on co-operative approaches to teaching and learning.

These characteristics have clearly proved attractive to many schools, and are seen as a way of building on good existing practice, and in particular offering a legal framework for local collaborative arrangements.

“Many of our larger Trusts have grown from existing well-established local partnerships” comments Sean Rogers, the lead on Trust schools for the Co-operative College, “In many places where the local community is already vibrant a co-operative school can be a logical development, and conversely in areas where there has been a previous lack of community engagement the development of a co-operative school can facilitate the emergence of such engagement.”

Co-operative clusters are becoming the predominant model in a number of areas, and it is expected that there will be over 130 schools in co-operative trusts in Devon and Cornwall alone by the end of the year.

“Schools and Trusts are also seeing the importance of collective action in the increasingly fragmented education system”, commented Sean Rogers. “They see the advantages of joint procurement and provision of important services such as schools improvement, as well as filling mutually and ethically, the vacuum left by the rapid and massive shrinkage of LEAs by the new Coalition Government.”

Schools have already formed a national network, the Schools Co-operative Society and it is quickly developing a regional structure.

“We see this as a stark contrast to the emerging academy chains. The Schools Co-operative Society is a network owned and directly controlled by co-operative schools. It does not top slice budgets of schools, as is the practice of most of the chains, and even more importantly schools retain their own autonomy and identity,” explains Dave Boston, Chief Executive of the Schools Co-operative Society.

The local community ownership is critical to the success of the co-operative models.

“The membership based model, community stake-holding, is about safeguarding these assets for communities in the long term. Co-operative trusts are about mutualisation and not privatisation, groups of schools working strategically together”, states Dr Pat McGovern, Head Teacher, Helston Community College, part of the 15 school Helston and Lizard Trust in Cornwall.

The Schools Co-operative Society - the national network of co-operative schools - has developed protocols with major trade unions in the education sector to maintain terms and conditions in employment. Dave Boston says;

“We believe strongly in developing positive relationships with trade unions representing employees in co-operative schools. The National Framework Agreement with UNISON extends recognition to staff not covered under the Teachers Pay and Condition Regulations. We are now actively working to extend that agreement to cover all of the major education sector unions.”

The Coalition Government’s emphasis on free schools and academies initially seemed to threaten the development of Trust schools. The Co-operative College responded by working with the Department of Education to develop a co-operative model for converter academies. By June 2012, twenty schools were co-operative academies, which share many of the characteristics of Trust schools, with parents/carers, staff, learners and the local community engaged through membership. The Swanage free school, scheduled to open in 2013, is committed to using a co-operative model building on the active community engagement that led to the successful proposal for the school.

Elsewhere groups of schools are seeing the potential of working together on schools’ improvement and supporting schools facing short-term difficulties. This provides a co-operative alternative to the ‘forced take-over’ model causing alarm in many parts of the country.

“The benefit of the Trust is to work collaboratively and support each other to ensure the best outcomes for children, as well as utilising the strength of numbers to procure products and services more competitively which will enable funds to be reinvested into positive activities for children and young people” says Deb Bacon, Consortium Operations Manager, The Burton Co-operative Learning Trust.

Today co-operative schools offer a distinct values driven contribution to diversity of provision in a rapidly changing education environment and over 300 schools have now become part of co-operative trusts or co-operative academies, with many more in the pipeline. This rapid growth may be one of the key co-operative success stories in 2012 – the year that has been designated the United Nations’ International Year of Co-operatives.

For further information on co-operative schools vist:

Mervyn Wilson has worked in the co-operative sector for over thirty years, primarily in the field of member education, co-operative identity and governance. He has worked with co-operatives throughout the world and led the development of co-operative trust schools and their national network.