Schools are going to have to pull together to face great challenges and changes to the education system – but there is real potential to build a co-operative, collaborative alternative to the existing system. That was the message of the fourth annual co-operative schools conference which took place in New Century House, Manchester at the start of November, and had the theme ‘Co-operative schools – where values matter’. Headteachers, Shadow Secretary of State for Education Stephen Twigg MP, trade unionists and leading educators all spoke in support of the growing network of co-operative schools and the Schools Co-operative Society, which gives a voice to co-operative schools across the country.
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The day started with a bang as the Radclyffe Co-operative Learning Trust’s carnival group Bangdrum greeted delegates with samba rhythms and colourful dancers in swirling skirts. The Radclyffe School from Chadderton, Oldham, was one of more than 150 co-operative schools represented at the conference. Over 200 heads, senior school leaders, teaching staff and educators from across England heard from a range of speakers from the co-operative movement and the world of education. Discussions and workshops also helped delegates find out more about how schools can work together to address the challenges facing education as well as make the most of the opportunities for co-operative schools in a day that delegates described as “inspirational”, “enjoyable”, “encouraging”, “exciting”, “valuable” and “uplifting”.
Dame Pauline Green, President of the International Co-operative Alliance, expressed her pleasure at being asked to open the conference. She said: “I am really excited that this is my first time addressing co-operative schools. I have watched the growth of co-operative education from 2008 to 2011 and it has been phenomenal. You are one of the emerging, powerful sectors coming through in the 21st century for the co-operative movement. Co-operative education is the newest sector of the UK’s co-operative economy and it would be great to see co-operative education up there as one of the main sectors.”
Green urged delegates to “work to establish critical mass of co-op education”, reminding them they are part of a world-wide movement. She said: “You are part of a huge global family of co-operatives all across the world. The mood is right.”
She also talked about the opportunities of 2012, International Year of Co-operatives to “raise the global visibility and profile” of co-operatives, which are “invisible in the corridors of power”, after the challenges of the global recession. She said: “We can only do that if we work together. I hope you will join us in 2012.”
Dave Boston, Chief Executive of the Schools Co-operative Society, gave an update on the work of the Society, which provides support and advice to co-operative schools. He said: “You have to take ownership of starting to develop networks in your area and develop education in your area. Co-operation can improve not only our schools but our relationships with staff to get them to do as well as they can. Through co-operation we do a better job.”
He added: “We need to seize the agenda as teachers and our job is to help you do that so we can genuinely deal with things from the bottom up.”
One of the functions of the Schools Co-operative Society will be to offer procurement of services and school improvement. Boston explained: “We want to develop an offer of quality services that avoid the men who come and knock on the door.”
Mervyn Wilson, Principal and Chief Executive of the Co-operative College, which worked to develop the co-operative schools model, outlined “the enormous changes that are taking place in the education sector”. These, said Wilson, include “the rapid marketisation of education”.
Co-operative schools, continued Wilson, offer: “The only alternative out there that really does have community accountability.” He said: “Concern for the community differentiates us. This is about putting community back into community schools.” He added: “The light bulb moment for schools is when they realise becoming a co-operative school means setting up their own co-operative, not being part of another co-operative.”
Wilson has hopes for collaboration between schools, encouraged by the growth of co-operative councils across the country. He also stressed the importance of “co-operation between co-operatives” and the potential of involving more co-operative and mutual businesses in schools, saying: “We are much stronger when we work together at a regional, national and global level. You are at the heart of that process.”
Wilson also praised the “growing and effective Schools Co-operative Society”, saying it will “ensure a voice for this very different network to academy chains in policy debate”.
Julie Thorpe, Head of School and Youth Programmes at the Co-operative College, also emphasised how co-operative schools are different, telling delegates: “Schools in some of the academy chains are being told to serve up a very precise and defined menu, but you haven’t bought into a franchise where at the start you were told how long and wide to cut your chips or how to greet your customers.”
She went on to help define the common characteristics of co-operative schools: “Young people are educated for citizenship and the global dimension is strong across all subjects. Co-operative learning is the norm and the classroom is shaped by co-operative values. Young people take responsibility for their own learning.”
Three headteachers from schools in Cornwall spoke about the explosion of interest in co-operative schools in the county, which looks likely to be the first local authority with a majority of co-operative schools. Dr Pat McGovern, Headteacher of Helston Community College, said: “Co-operative schools ensure social justice for all. Education should not be run as business. Schools should not be sold off. The next step for raising achievement is getting parents and the community involved in learning.”
Lee Bacchus, Executive Head at St Teath Community Primary School and St Breward Community Primary School, Bodmin, elaborated on the particular challenges facing Cornish schools, which are often small and isolated. He said: “We are a very co-operative, collaborative county anyway. Schools have to work together because of the rural nature of the schools. We get to know every child individually and co-operation encourages that.”
Bacchus believes co-operation comes naturally to the Cornish – so much so he considers the Cornish pasty “epitomises the co-operative movement”! He explained: “Cornish pasties have a diversity of fillings, and we’ve got a diversity of stakeholders in our school. The pastry represents the ethos – the values that hold the co-operative together. The pasty also serves all aspects of the community.”
Donna Bryant, Headteacher at Liskeard School and Community College, explained their personal route to becoming a co-operative school: “Our lowest point was being offered the chance to join an academy chain after a disappointing Ofsted report. We wanted the best for our students so we found a different way. We already had a strong relationship with our primaries and the natural next step was to build membership and mutuality so everyone in the community feels they own and are part of the school and it is not just a building.”
Co-operative schools have the backing of Stephen Twigg, Labour/Co-op MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Education, who described the growth of co-operative schools as being part of a “broader renaissance in the co-operative movement”. He said: “We owe a huge debt to the pioneers of co-operation, including Robert Owen, a great advocate of early years education.”
Twigg said he was looking forward to visiting as many co-operative schools as possible across England. He said: “I am very excited about the momentum of co-operative schools and the Schools Co-operative Society around the country. I have no doubt the co-operative movement will play a key role in answering policy challenges.”
He said co-operative schools offer “real freedom” and an alternative to a “top down, centrist approach to education that is vulnerable to market failure and democratic deficit”. He said: “There are too many gimmicks in education. Only self-improvement is truly sustainable in the long term. True autonomy for schools should include freedom for schools to adopt a model even if it is not favoured by the current government of the day. School autonomy should be combined with a system based on collaboration so headteachers, staff, governors, parents and pupils hold the levers of power. They are the true experts about what needs to happen in our schools and communities. Autonomy and collaboration go hand in hand.”
He continued: “We must ensure schools meet the needs of parents, promoting parents and teachers as active citizens helping their own destiny and ensure schools are agents of social improvement, narrowing the attainment gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds.”
Dr John Dunford, Chair of Whole Education, a partnership between leading educational institutions, added to the debate about educational reforms and the changing curriculum, but also spoke of the opportunities to build an alternative. He told delegates it was “a really exciting time to create a new narrative of education” by “working together not just within your own trusts but with the co-operative movement as a whole”.
Dunford said educators need to “look outwards” to ensure a “fully rounded education for young people”, calling for a curriculum that “engages young people and is relevant to them and their future”. He described the new English Baccalaureate an “accountability measure not a curriculum” that “adds nothing to qualifications”.
Dunford also stressed the importance of “partnership working between schools” and said “co-operative schools are a great example to the rest of the system”. He urged: “I encourage you to work together and create a co-operative curriculum framework to reinforce the values of the co-operative movement that underpin everything you do.”
Dr Patrick Roach, Deputy General Secretary of NASUWT, also entered the dialogue about the changing nature of school provision. He accused the big society of being a “policy construct”, saying: “The co-operative movement is something that is qualitatively different to the big society.”
He spoke of the rise in unemployment across the country and a “recruitment and retention crisis in our schools”, describing “a massive assault on the workforce”, including pensions, job security, gagging clauses and terms and conditions.
He also accused educational reforms of “reducing access to the broad and balanced curriculum pupils are entitled to”. He added: “The government is encouraging schools to ride roughshod over the views of local people. It has let loose predatory chains of sponsors who are standing ready to pick off struggling schools with their new-found freedoms.”
However, he sees hope for “partnership and collaboration between schools and their communities”, saying: “A co-operative alternative has the potential to redefine academies in a more inclusive, democratic and accountable way in which unions are part of the solution and not the problem.”
John Chowcat, General Secretary of Aspect, the union for children’s services professionals, also said he thought the co-operative schools movement had “tremendous potential”. He called for “an approach to school improvement that is sustainable and works”. He said: “To raise standards within the school you have to build capacity within the school. Commitment to co-operative values is about sharing experiences and working in partnership.”
Chris Fabby, National Officer, UNISON, added his congratulations on “the energy and drive behind this movement”, saying “the growth in co-operative schools really has been very impressive”.
Fabby said he was proud that UNISON had signed a national framework agreement with the Schools Co-operative Society to protect the terms and conditions of school support workers. He said: “UNISON and the co-operative movement share many concerns. We have the responsibility to fly the flag for a school system based on co-operative values and promote and protect co-operative education.”
He added: “We are not opposed to change. We are pro-reform and renewal. We are opposed to government reforms which appear dogmatic and open the doors to privatisation, asset strippers and profiteers.
“The new system based on market values and competition will create winners and losers amongst our schools. The losers will be the vulnerable schools in areas of high deprivation with a high concentration of children from poor backgrounds.”
However, it was not all talk and no action. Delegates also took part in roundtable discussions and workshops. Vic Goddard, Principal of Passmores co-operative Academy in Harlow, subject of Channel 4’s Educating Essex series, led a discussion on school-media relations. Ashley Simpson, a member and former student of co-operative school Reddish Vale Technology College in Stockport, advised on developing student voice. Peter Laurence, Development Director at the Brigshaw Co-operative Trust in Leeds, shared his experiences of developing mini and micro co-operative children’s Trusts. Mags Bradbury, National Projects Manager, at The Co-operative Group, talked to schools about how they can get involved in 2012 International Year of Co-operatives. Outreach officers from the National Co-operative Archive and Rochdale Pioneers Museum ran a workshop on using artefacts including objects and photos for learning and active listening. Cobbetts LLP offered drop-in legal advice for co-operative schools. Delegates shared experiences of developing staff voice and how to set up membership forums. Other discussions took place around school improvement, procurement of goods/services, finance support, co-operative curriculum and pedagogy and CDP training.
Phil Arnold, Chair of The Schools Co-operative Society and Director of College Improvement at Reddish Vale Technology College, a co-operative school near Stockport, said: “It was wonderful to see so many people together at the conference. As a membership driven organisation, we all need to commit a little time and energy to support this exciting and new co-operative way of working together. I am sure that as the regional networks develop the mutual benefits for learners across all these institutions will be plentiful. To quote Conner in year 9 this week: ‘People need co-operation and co-operation needs people.’
“Many thanks to all those who attended the conference and a big thank you for all those members of SCS that supported the delivery of the event.”
Delegate Andrea Hazeldine, Headteacher of Torpoint Community College in Cornwall, summed up the day by saying: “I really enjoyed the conference – the sense of being involved at the start of something; helping shape and build something that should become truly inspiring and a real change agent in the process of reevaluating what school and education in the 21st century is all about.”
Another delegate described the conference as: “The most uplifting, positive and optimistic educational event in which I’ve participated for a good number of years. Dedicated professionals – school leaders, governors, elected members and others actually talking about co-operation, collaboration, values and principles!”
A further delegate added: “It was really encouraging to know you were amongst people who had committed themselves to the values – this brought liberty to be able to share openly and know you would find support rather than criticism or judgment. A really supportive conference which was fit for purpose – refreshing not to have it encumbered by executive luxurious waste that accompanies some educational conferences!”
Mags Bradbury, National Projects Manager at The Co-operative Group, said: “The Schools Co-operative Society conference was a great opportunity for co-operative schools to come together and discuss how they build the co-operative schools movement. It was fantastic to see so many schools attending and sharing their stories on how co-operative values and principles are making an impact on their schools.”
Find out more about samba social enterprise Bangdrum at www.bangdrum.co.uk.
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