The number of cooperative schools is growing rapidly
—The current education system is more fragmented than at any point in the past 25 years. There are dramatic variations in schools’ success, and in the accountability they have to the communities they serve.
The Labour government introduced the academy programme to turn around underperforming schools, predominantly in areas of deprivation. Many of these proved that greater freedom coupled with community control was a winning formula, transforming their students’ future prospects. Unfortunately, this government allows any school to become an academy. We then saw scandals, such as at the Al-Madinah free school, where schools fail to deliver even a satisfactory level of education. There are also schools forced to become academies, some scooped up by expansion-hungry chains who limit the involvement of parents, students and the wider community.
Earlier this year I introduced a bill into parliament to enshrine in legislation the structure of cooperative schools. There are already over 600 across the country, and the number is growing. Cooperative trust schools are at the forefront of a quiet revolution, and the national Cooperative Schools Network is now larger than any of the major academy chains. Launched by the last Labour government, the cooperative model ensures that everyone with a stake in the school’s success – parents, teachers, support staff, local community organisations and pupils – has the opportunity to be involved in running it.
Cooperative schools benefit from their links to the wider cooperative movement with its tens of millions of members. The key is having control in local hands, not exchanging local education authority control for Whitehall, or for unaccountable education chains.
Emerging results show cooperative schools provide a well-rounded curriculum and equip pupils with the social and personal skills they need to thrive. They raise aspiration and attainment by instilling in pupils cooperative values such as self-help, social responsibility, equality and a global outlook, delivered within a faith-neutral environment. This is a model that delivers academic excellence driven by local accountability.
The new shadow secretary of state for education, Tristram Hunt, has already called for parent-led academies. Theoretically, cooperative schools enjoy cross-party support: David Cameron said in 2008 that there should be ‘a new generation of cooperative schools funded by the taxpayer but owned by parents and the local community’. The trade union NASUWT is also supportive of the model.
The most recent convert from the Conservative benches is Steve Baker, member of parliament for Wycombe. He saw for himself the difference that becoming a cooperative made to a school in one of the most deprived areas of his constituency. In a recent debate he described how he learned about the values of the cooperative movement, and felt that, separated from state power, they represent values and ideals that any fully formed human being should support.
However, the legal forms of cooperatives are determined as industrial and provident societies, or cooperative or community benefit societies. There is no provision in the relevant acts for cooperative schools. Currently, the majority of these schools operate within an informal network of cooperative trusts.
The Education and Inspections Act 2006 needs to be amended to allow nursery schools to become school trusts and cooperatives. Cooperatives, by their nature, are based in a geographical area that serves a local community. A cooperative trust could be a school from nursery through to secondary level, and perhaps through to further education.
To secure a solid foundation for their continued development we have to formalise the framework within which they operate. I have called on the government to work with me and the Cooperative party to bring forward legislation to ensure cooperative schools can work on a level playing field with other school structures.
If this government fails to support cooperative schools, then the next Labour administration must introduce legislation to strengthen their legal framework. This is an important step to ensure the cooperative model is able to develop to serve local communities.
Meg Munn is member of parliament for Sheffield Heeley
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