June 2011

Features

  • Fledge funds?
    When budgets are squeezed, schools and colleges need to drum up new sources of income. And, like any management task, it requires a properly thought-out plan of attack. Val Andrew offers some ideas. More
  • The generation game
    From carpentry and childcare to hosting conferences and opening a professional gym, schools and colleges are finding imaginative ways to generate new income. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Brave admissions
    UCAS boss Mary Curnock Cook is leading an overhaul of the 50 year old university admissions system, tackling some of the problems previously labelled 'too difficult' to address. She talks to Liz Lightfoot. More
  • Taking up the challenge
    If you decide to challenge an Ofsted decision, what can you expect? Jan Webber explains the dispute process and looks at the case of one institution which refused to accept an inaccurate report. More
  • Hives of activity
    Co-operative schools, with their emphasis on work ethic, self-help and social responsibility, are booming. Dorothy Lepkowska explores what makes them tick and looks at plans for the first co-op academy. More
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Co-operative schools, with their emphasis on work ethic, self-help and social responsibility, are booming. Dorothy Lepkowska explores what makes them tick and looks at plans for the first co-op academy.

Hives of activity

A quiet revolution is sweeping the state secondary sector. At a time when greater individualism and freedoms are being encouraged by the coalition government, hundreds of schools are embracing an entirely different approach.

Ideologically a long way removed from academies and free schools is the growth of the co-operative schools movement, which now includes around 140 schools and is rising steadily.

"You will never hear governments promoting co-operative schools because their thinking is around academies," says Mervyn Wilson, chief executive of the Co-operative College, a charity working with co-operatives in the UK and globally.

"The form of governance in co-operative schools and trusts is one that engages fully with key stakeholders."

The ethos of co-operative schools and trusts is enshrined in the established, globally shared values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equity, equality and solidarity. The curriculum is based around these principles, as well as teamwork and co-operation.

"We find increasingly that schools look for opportunities to introduce these values into the curriculum because of the type of rounded education they want to provide for their students. It is not just about a passing reference to Victorians in history," Mervyn says.

In January this year, the Schools Co-operative Society (SCS) was established to support the burgeoning network of co-operative schools and trusts, and to develop a range of services specifically for their needs.

Dave Boston, head of Sir Thomas Boughey High School, in Stoke-on- Trent, is the first chair of its board. "The SCS is the first time in this country that the educational co-operative sector has had its own organisation," he says.

"It will help schools to manage things such as human resources and strategic support in brokering services, as well as providing a support network for schools experiencing difficulties in, for example, a particular area of the curriculum.

"For teachers to be working in a co-op school is one of the rare occasions when they are in charge of their destinies, because they have a say in the direction of the school and the way it is run."

Community driven

About 80 per cent of the staff at Sir Thomas Boughey are co-op members and the school has a co-operative board which acts as a watchdog, ensuring the ethos is maintained.

"Co-ops are not run on the whim of an individual or a small group of people," Dave says. "These principles are the glue that holds everything together. So even when I am gone it will continue seamlessly because all the structures are in place."

The schoolís curriculum is tailored towards the needs of the community, with Stokeís traditional mining, pottery and ironworks industries having been replaced with a strong IT base.

"We hope that the co-operative ethos will encourage young people to remain or come back to this area after university, to build up and contribute to the local economy," Dave adds.

Peter Laurence, development director of the Brigshaw Co-operative Trust of eight schools Ė seven primaries and a secondary school in Leeds Ė said the co-operative model had a particular resonance with school staff.

"It is a model of trust that people feel happy and comfortable with," he says. "The more you work on those core values, the more natural they become. It is a very powerful values-driven approach."

The trust was formalised having operated previously as a soft federation, and is now advising others considering a similar move. "It is not about cloning, but working together," Peter says.

"We had already done a lot of work around extended services and the childrenís agenda and were operating almost as a mini local authority. We chose to become a trust to sustain that in a more formal way. Now we co-operate on issues such as school improvement, teaching and learning and leadership."

The schools organise joint events such as Fair Trade days, and staff work together on sharing best practice to improve their teaching. One of the aims of the Brigshaw trust is for each of its schools to be outstanding within two years. This will be achieved, it believes, with collaboration and mutual support.

A strong referral and pastoral system has all but eliminated exclusions. "The co-operative ethos allows children to take on more responsibility and to shape what happens in their school," Peter adds. "There is ample evidence to show the impact this has on behaviour and attendance."

Every school within the trust continues to be run by its own governing body and each puts in about one per cent of budget every year to further the trustís work. It generates about £250,000 a year through extended services funding and other services, such as mental health provision.

The challenges, Peter says, are in "getting every school and governing body to be moving in the same direction at the same speed, at the same time. It takes a lot of work at first to get people on board and to get them to talk to each other."

Co-op academies

What co-operative schools cannot do, however, is ignore government policy. The Co-operative College has been negotiating with the Department for Education on drawing up an academy model for those schools that wish to go down this route.

This has not been easy, says Mervyn Wilson. "There is a layer of civil servants who donít understand how the co-operative concept fits into schools and think there is a link with the Co-op Bank.

"It is very hard to get them to understand models that are different from what they already know. But schools are keen to put in place safeguards to ensure they cannot be privatised and that their existing governance remains in place."

A meeting between the college and DfE officials in May ironed out a number of issues and draft articles of association have now been finalised for use by co-operatives schools seeking to become academies. It is hoped that the first schools can assume full academy status by 1 September.

One such school is Lipson Community College in Plymouth, whose articles of association are currently being re-adjusted to bring them into line with the spirit of the wider co-operative movement.

Steve Baker, the headteacher, says: "A group of schools were converting to academy status here in Plymouth so it was important for us to go at the same time as everyone else."

Of co-op members at the school, all 90 voted in favour of academy status. "It really took us by surprise. In the run-up to the vote we had been debating what constitutes a mandate and we thought around 51 per cent should be enough," Steve says.

"Everyone voted in favour not because they wanted us to become an academy but because it was seen as a way to carry the co-op ethos forward, free from interference."

No hogs, no logs

Lipson, which became a co-operative school three years ago, has developed a pedagogy based on social responsibility and inter-dependence. Under its "no hogs, no logs" slogan, no one pupil is allowed to monopolise a teacherís attention in class either through being disruptive or calling out the answer to every question.

Enterprise is strong at the school, with the promotion of Fair Trade products and the creation of several mini co-ops. Its Co-operative Big Band, for example, performs concerts around the region with any income generated reinvested in the purchase of instruments "relieving the school budget of this burden", Steve says.

Meanwhile, a group of pupils who have been trained by staff in theatre lighting for school productions offer their services to local amateur dramatics organisations, commanding up to £100 for a three-night schedule of shows. The money goes directly to the pupils, giving them opportunities to generate some personal income.

"We went down the co-operative road at a time education was at a crossroads," Steve adds. "Regardless of who won the election, we were unconvinced that private involvement in education was a good thing.

"We wanted partnerships not sponsors and looked for ethical alternatives. Becoming a co-operative school opened up a whole new world. It was an awakening for us and we have never looked back."

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

The Co-operative College:www.co-op.ac.uk or schools@co-op.ac.uk

Hives of activity

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