Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

August 15, 2012

Schools are missing a trick

Schools are peculiar institutions.  Centrally owned and managed by the local authority, with limited discretionary powers over budgets devolved to head teachers.  They’re peculiar because despite the undoubted pressures they face, schools seem content to ignore the very resource that could ease much of that pressure – the community that sits around them and in particular, parents.   The spectacular growth of the Coop School movement might hold some answers.


Simon Birch, The Guardian, 26.07.12

Harold Wilson would surely have approved. The Labour prime minister’s old grammar school in Huddersfield is now one the country’s leading co-op schools and a passionate supporter of the spectacular growth of this type schools.

“I’m really very excited about co-op schools,” says Melanie Williams headteacher at Royds Hall High School in Huddersfield. “I can’t imagine working any other way.”

The first co-op school was established in 2008 and, by the start of the new academic year this September, there will be more than 350 such schools, with many more in the pipeline, an achievement which has even taken the co-op school movement by surprise.

“We’ve been shocked by just how popular co-op schools have proved to be,” confesses Mervyn Wilson, who leads the Manchester-based Co-operative College which develops and supports schools making the transition to co-op school status.

“We’re now the third largest association of schools in England after church-run schools, a ranking which has largely gone unnoticed.”

Such has been the dramatic growth of co-op schools that they constitute one of the three fastest growing sectors of the already booming UK co-op economy.

So what exactly is a co-op school? Before this can be answered a short history lesson is required – pay attention at the back now.

The very first school which was run along co-operative principles can be traced back to the 1830s. Since those pioneering days, education has played a central role in co-op activity.

However by the 1960’s many aspects of the co-op economy were thought to be outdated and plainly irrelevant, so co-op schools quietly slipped out of fashion.

What led to their renaissance was Blair’s 2006 Education and Inspections Act. This introduced the idea of trust schools, which were trumpeted as “independent state schools”; they allowed for a loosening of the ties between local authorities and schools.

While they would remain funded by local authorities, schools would become charitable trusts, with other key features, including establishing long-term partnerships with outside groups such as local businesses and charities who would then become involved with the school’s governance and leadership.

The smart thinkers at the Co-operative College spotted that this presented a golden opportunity to develop a co-operative-based model for trust schools. The result was that in 2008 Reddish Vale technology college in Stockport became the first ground-breaking co-operative trust school in England, which heralded the current revolution in co-op led education.

In answer then to what defines a co-op school, Wilson, at the Co-operative College, identifies two key features. “The first is that the co-op values of democracy, equity and fairness are applied right across the school,” he explains.

“The second is a governance model that directly engages key stakeholders through membership of the trust that includes, parents and carers, staff, the local community and the pupils themselves.

Together they form a community-based mutual organisation.”

It is a governance model that Wilson says puts the school right at the heart of local communities, which in turn have a direct input into how their school is run.

So what exactly are the benefits of a co-op school?

“One of the key advantages are the opportunities that the partner organisations can bring to the school,” says Wilson, who adds that co-op schools are encouraged to team up with other local co-ops or social enterprises. Royds Hall, for example, which became a co-op school in 2011 has a trustee from the Fairtraders Co-operative from nearby Holmfirth.

“Having a trustee who’s directly involved with the Fairtrade movement has helped the students to run the school as a Fairtrade school,” says headteacher Melanie Williams, “and it’s a relationship that’s worked very well for us.

“The values and worldwide nature to being a co-operative is also very much at the forefront of our planning and strategy and has enabled us to establish links with other co-ops around Europe. Making these links to the wider world really helps to raise the attainment for students because you’re widening their horizons.

To read the full article, click here.