Growth on the cards for co-op academies

Gabriella Jozwiak
Tuesday, October 30, 2012

As the Co-operative Group opens two new schools, experts predict the shift towards co-operative academies is set to gather pace

Last month, the Co-op opened two academies. The organisation now sponsors three academies in total, but England-wide there are now 27 academies governed by co-operative structures and principles. It is a trend that education experts believe is set to continue as the number of academies grows at an increasing pace.

The Co-op academies of Leeds and Stoke-on-Trent both existed as secondary schools before the business became their sponsor. The schools were struggling and the Co-op says its decision to step in arose from its relationship with the local authorities in both areas.

“The first of our academies opened in Manchester,” explains Mags Bradbury, academy programme manager at the Co-op. “The local authority was looking for an appropriate sponsor, and we have a strong presence in Manchester and a positive relationship with the city council.”

The academies are managed in line with the co-operative ethos of democracy and equality. The firm expects strong governance and accountability to operate throughout the institutions, from the board of governors to the classroom, and pupils are offered study options associated with the business side of the organisation. “We’re constantly looking for opportunities for where our students can get involved,” says Bradbury. “Anything from simple interview skills to direct links into our apprenticeship programme.”

Bradbury says the support offered to the academies by the Co-op is of greater value than any financial benefits. “We don’t hand over cash,” she explains. “We fund projects that are about experi­menting – things you wouldn’t normally provide within your academy budget.” One example is a literacy scheme in Stoke, being trialled in three primary schools connected to the academy.

Sponsoring academies
The Co-op has agreed to sponsor three more academies in the coming years and is deciding on sites in the North East, so that the new schools can form a network with its existing academies.

Outside of the Co-op’s sponsorship, 24 other co-operative academies exist nationwide. These have all been set up under a model developed by The Co-operative College, which began its work under the last government.

Since the coalition came to power, the college has produced a Department for Education-approved co-operative model for converter academies. Among the existing academies, 18 are converter schools supported by a charitable foundation, while six are co-operative-sponsored business and enterprise colleges.

Mervyn Wilson, chief executive and principal of the college, says the co-operative model is most popular among primary schools, of which more than 200 already exist. But he suggests that the co-operative academy model provides an opportunity for all schools to maintain a community-led focus on education – something that he says is becoming increasingly attractive as the number of autonomous schools increases.

“Many people are concerned about the democratic deficit or the lack of accountability in the standard academy model,” Wilson says. “The commitment to democratic engagement and equality, and putting key stakeholders at the heart of it, mean that the co-operative academy model is far more responsive to the community.”

He gives the example of a co-operative academy in Thurrock, which recently converted to a co-operative academy “multi-trust”, to allow a number of schools to share in its resources and expertise. This has enabled the academy to sponsor a local school that was in special measures. “Instead of the school being handed over to one of the big chains, they’ve kept a local solution,” Wilson says.

His view is shared by the teaching union NASUWT, which is advising schools planning to convert to academy status to adopt the co-operative model. Chris Keates, general secretary, says this is the preferable outcome for schools being put under pressure to convert by the DfE, but which do not wish to be taken over by a national chain.

Enthusiastic attitude
“There’s been huge enthusiasm across our members for the co-operative academy model being an alternative,” says Keates. “Co-operative schools operate national pay and conditions, recognise unions, have all the values of state education and believe in collaboration. Basically, you have a provider that’s not a predatory, private profiteer.”

Keates predicts there will be more co-operative academies in the future, arguing that the take-up levels seen in the primary sector will be replicated among academies for pupils of all ages.

Whether the co-operative trend will see a similar take-up among free schools remains to be seen. The New Schools Network, which provides advice to parties interested in setting up free schools, does not hold data on the number of proposed co-operative free schools. But Wilson says the college is aware of two free schools that plan to follow the co-operative model, one of which is due to open in Barking next year.

Keates says co-operative free schools would be preferable to those set up without such principles. “We don’t advocate free schools, because they’re not viable,” she says. “But if you have a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, then you choose the deep blue sea, which would be a co-operative free school.”

In numbers

338 number of co-operative schools
in England

207 number of co-operative primary
schools in England

27 number of co-operative
academies in England

Source: The Co-operative College

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