Co-operative Schools – a Quiet Revolution


Tom Levitt’s article for Progress Online, February 2013

There is a quiet revolution going on in England’s schools. They have discovered that implementing controversial Labour legislation on trust schools and academies, coupled with the coalition’s manic passion for the latter, does not mean that school communities must be divided, isolated or divorced from accountable local authorities and other community institutions.

The Cooperative Schools Movement has raced to maturity in under five years. The first member was created in 2008 when Reddish Vale School in Stockport decided to adopt cooperative values and principles not only in its governance and relations with the local community but in its teaching methods too. Today over 400 schools have followed suit and become cooperative trust schools using those freedoms granted under the 2006 Education and Inspections Act – the majority as clusters of schools who believe that cooperation and collaboration is the best way of securing the highest standards for all. Others have adopted a Department for Education-approved cooperative model for converter academies which, like the trust model, embodies a school ethos based on globally defined cooperative values and governance mechanisms to engage key stakeholders – parents/carers, staff, learners and the local community through membership. In three cities, Leeds, Manchester and Stoke, the Cooperative Group sponsors an academy.

All have a common commitment to sharing and learning from each other’s best practice, to networking and to being ‘cooperative’ in every way. This extends to cooperation in learning and the development of democratic structures to empower students, stimulating engagement in the process of governance. A ‘cooperative identity mark’ logo helps to generate the network’s cooperative identity.

On the governing body of a cooperative school you will find businesses, leisure and other interests but you may also find the local authority as a welcome partner. At least one school has expressed its values by inviting its local fair trade town steering committee to be represented. A key aspect of the movement’s work is the promotion of communities of schools – such as a secondary and its feeder primaries sharing a trust body, or a cluster of primaries working together. I was not surprised to see a school where I had both studied and taught, Westwood High in Leek, on the list of pioneers; it has always been at the forefront of educational progress.

International links with cooperative schools elsewhere, especially in developing countries, are important to the movement.

Ofsted is impressed. It is clear that cooperative schools do not just talk about enabling learning communities, they do it – many showing startling improvements in performance since implementing cooperative education. And their number one fan is the teachers’ union NASUWT, normally no friend of the academies and trusts programme. The Schools Cooperative Society, which represents and coordinates the movement, has a recognition agreement with Unison to protect conditions for support staff in all their schools.

The last word goes to Mervyn Wilson, principal of The Cooperative College in Manchester, which has promoted the concept from the start:

‘What is encouraging is the rapidly growing network of schools that passionately believe that collaboration and cooperation is the way to secure lasting improvement, rather than competition for competition’s sake.’

Amen to that.