Co-operative Academies: Tensions and Possibilities research talk

PhD candidate Joanna Dennis.PhD candidate Jo Dennis gave an update on her research into co-operative Academy schools at the latest instalment of lunchtime session Holyoake House Hour.

Jo is undertaking a doctoral studentship at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research concerns the expansion of the co-operative schools model, which was developed by the Co-operative College in 2008 and has grown to a network of more than 800 schools across England. Initially based on the co-operative Trust model, where schools continue to receive funding directly from their local education authority but seek greater stakeholder engagement in the running of the school, the sector expanded to encompass co-operative Academies in 2010. Academies are independent state schools which are taken out of local authority control and receive funding directly from the government. They are often driven by rhetoric such as ‘innovation’ and ‘autonomy’.

Jo reminded colleagues from the Co-operative College of the background to the co-operative Academies model. Though co-operative schools had been presented as an alternative to government ambitions to turn schools into Academies, the co-operative Academies model was developed as a necessary response to the increasing trend for schools to become Academies. Jo explained that Academies remain a “highly contested model”, with low levels of support among education professionals and a high level of centralisation that “raises questions for democracy”. Although there are also tensions within the co-operative Academy model, she says, there is also “masses of possibility”, which is supported by people working in schools.

In the course of her research Jo has visited a range of co-operative Academy schools in order to understand the motivations, expectations and experiences of stakeholders such as staff and students. She has sought to find out how co-operative practice is embedded in schools, which have already got long histories and embedded interests, and to explore the challenges presented by the process of becoming a co-operative school. Jo chose schools which were deemed to be performing (by external standards, such as Ofsted) at differing levels, aiming to go beyond the small number of ‘flagship’ schools which receive most attention. This raised questions about how school success is measured, and which factors should be taken into account when judging schools to be ‘successful’ or ‘failing’. A school can be unsuccessful by narrow Ofsted criteria such as exam pass-rates, but be an example of successful co-operative practice by, for example, encouraging student voice and maintaining strong links with its wider area. Jo’s PhD research makes use of qualitative methods such as case studies, interviews, observation and photos. It also involves document reviews and thematic analysis around the key themes of engagement, community, structures, pedagogy and development.

Jo argued that, despite the challenges, co-operative Academies are a “very, very exciting, positive prospect for people who work in education”, due to a “values-driven approach” that “is what schools, professionals and school leaders want”. She commented: “As educational professional I think it is vital that values-based alternatives are explored, as that’s how schools work.”

The session also enabled College staff to feed in with observations from their own experiences of working with co-operative schools. Julie Thorpe, Lead: School Programmes and Digital Learning, commented: “The rules of the game have changed several times over the past ten years, and the goal posts have changed as to what constitutes success or failure. However, Academies are here to stay, and co-operative Academies can change the way success is measured, for example by looking at what type of people schools turn out at the end of their school experience.”

Dr Cilla Ross, the College’s Vice Principal: Education and Research, commented: ““Co-operative schools are a critical part of the College’s work and it is incredible to have such a critical lense with which to view co-operative Academy schools. It is really valuable for colleagues in the College, who work with and hear about co-operative schools all the time, to have that understanding of key issues around co-operative schools and models.”

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