Leaders of the future200,000 students in co-operative schools: are these our leaders of the future?

A report by Co-operatives UK, entitled ‘The UK co-operative economy 2012: alternatives to austerity’, noted that co-operatives were outperforming the wider economy, highlighting one particularly vibrant sector – co-operative schools.

Since 2008, co-operative Trusts and Academies have spread rapidly across England, heralded as offering a more democratic and less top-down alternative to the current school system. Co-operative schools in England are the latest in an international movement of co-operative schools, long-established in many parts of the world from Spain to the USA.

Co-operative schools embed the values and principles into every aspect of school life, from their membership structure to curriculum and pedagogy. There are now an astonishing 260,000-plus students in more than 800 co-operative schools across England, connecting a whole new generation with the co-operative values and principles.

A democratic, member-owned alternative for England’s schools

Co-operative schools offer a new model of accountability in England’s school system. They are owned by their members – staff, students, parents/carers and members of the local community – and accountable to a stakeholder forum drawn from these key constituencies. Local people are encouraged to get actively involved in the running of their schools.

Student members have particularly benefited from the opportunity to participate directly in their education. Young people are marginalised by the media and are often negatively perceived within society but in co-operative schools they are taking the lead, co-operating to achieve a better future not just for themselves but for their communities and society.

Burnt Mill School, Harlow

Until recently, just 27% of students at Burnt Mill School in Harlow, Essex achieved five good grades, including English and Maths, at GCSE level. Since Burnt Mill became a co-operative Trust school in 2010 and subsequently a co-operative Academy, the leap in students’ attainment has been dramatic.

In 2012, 72% of students achieved the target of five good GCSEs including English and Maths. Headteacher Helena Mills believes this is a direct demonstration of how the co-operative values can impact on attainment. “We would attribute the success to the fact that the co-operative values of equality and solidarity inform everything we do in the school. We have not necessarily done one thing as an Academy but have taken many steps to ensure we achieve equality of opportunity. The results are improved because all my teachers and support staff are committed to ensuring that young people from all backgrounds achieve above expectations,” comments Helena.

Burnt Mill is in an area of high deprivation, with large numbers of white working class students, and the school has implemented several changes to help all groups of learners achieve. Helena explains: “We set very challenging targets for students and expect all groups of learners to make four levels progress, not three. We ensure we prepare lessons that take into consideration the needs and backgrounds of young people. Our interventions are targeted at particular groups, for example FSM students, and we track students very carefully.”

Central to the co-operative model for schools is involving key stakeholders in the running of the school, from students and parents/carers to members of the local community, a way of ensuring that schools are democratically accountable to the communities they serve. Burnt Mill has embraced the model, and is reaping the benefits. Helena says: “Our engagement with the community and parents, such as using ambassadors from the community and running parental workshops to ensure that parents can support students at home, has been instrumental.”

Helena also describes as “instrumental” the support the school received from the Co-operative College. She explains: “When everybody had given up on the school and was ready to send us down sponsored academy route, the College came and supported me in challenging DfE meetings! I think it is an essential part of our success!”

Passmores Academy EssexPassmores Academy, Essex

Another co-operative school which has seen a dramatic increase in its results is Passmores Academy in Harlow, Essex, which became a co-operative Academy in September 2011. In 2012, the school celebrated a marked rise in its results from 50% of students achieving 5 good GCSEs, including English and Maths, to 66%.

However the school has still faced a tough future. Principal Vic Goddard admits: “I am certain that we haven’t had as difficult a year as the last one in my career, due to the seemingly endless message that we are not doing a good enough job from those at the top, as well as the pressures that we have put on ourselves!”

The co-operative values have underpinned the school’s progress in delivering a child-centred education. “The young people have achieved at the level they have due to the partnership of students, staff and the community – or co-operation if you will! The values that drive our school, and that are written all over it, are those that have enabled staff and students to persevere when the going gets tough and to unlock the doors to their future,” reflects Vic.

Vic explains how values shape the school: “We start with honesty and openness as the basis of our ‘working’ relationships between staff and students alike. We are transparent with our students about where they are in their journeys and why we need them to behave in certain ways. The use and understanding of the data we hold on every individual young person is at the centre of all that we do and is not hidden from the students. This honesty and openness, more often than not, leads to an understanding by our young people that self-help and self-responsibility will be their keys to success, with our help along the way.

“As a school we accept that young people make mistakes, and that they learn from them by working together; that way we can create an environment where there is a strong collegial approach to helping our students overcome any barriers to their progress.”

Co-operative multi-school Trust: a model for specialist schools

All ten special educational needs schools in Devon have teamed up to create the first co-operative multi-school Trust, the SENtient Trust, composed entirely of special schools. The Trust model is attractive to special schools as it can help strengthen their provision by enabling groups of schools to access specialist resources, provide a student-centred education for all learners and give increased voice to students, both in school and the community.

At a time when the role and function of local authorities is being greatly and rapidly reduced, the Devon schools believe that Trust status will enable them to establish strong, long-term partnerships with key partners who can help increase resources and opportunities for staff and pupils. As well as partnering with the co-operative movement, the SENtient Trust is working with local children’s home Atkinson School, pupil referral units in central, south and north Devon and Devon Hospitals Short-Stay School.

Representatives from the schools say that adopting Trust status formalises existing collaboration and working partnerships between the schools: “Our schools have long worked together and with mainstream partner schools for mutual benefit. Headteachers and teachers from our schools regularly meet together to share ideas and to receive training and, where possible, learners from our schools take part in activities organised by the schools working together. These approaches have helped our schools to improve by sharing best practice. Working together has also helped us to develop a common set of aims and values.”

Furthermore, adopting the co-operative Trust membership structure, where members are drawn from key stakeholders in the school, is enabling the families of students to become directly involved in learners’ education, and is encouraging students to play an active part in the life of their local community.

The Tame Valley Co-operative Learning Trust

Six primary schools in Staffordshire have teamed up with the Tamworth Co-operative Society to form the Tame Valley Co-operative Learning Trust, believing that they can achieve more by working together than as individual schools.

The schools have clearly identified the benefits of the co-operative model: “The values of the co-operative movement resonate with us and reflect our commitment to self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, solidarity, honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. We believe in the co-operative approach to engaging stakeholders and working together for the mutual benefit of our community. The co-operative schools model is also aligned with the self-improving schools system vision of a national and local government.

“We have chosen to become a co-operative Trust because these are the values and principles which we feel should underpin our work – with each other and with our young people.”

Through the Trust, the schools believe they can improve the quality and consistency of teaching and raise aspirations among students, parents and staff, harnessing resources efficiently in the interests of learning and creating the right conditions for enjoyable, effective learning. This includes fostering creativity and innovation in young people through an exciting and challenging curriculum and creating a sense of local pride amongst learners. The schools expect this to have knock-on effects on behaviour and attendance.

Lipson Community College: a co-operative Academy

Lipson Community College became a co-operative Trust school in 2009 and a Co-operative Academy in 2012, joining over 800 co-operative schools across England who have adopted a co-operative structure using a model developed by the Co-operative College. Situated in the city of Plymouth in Devon, it is a large, urban secondary school serving some of the most deprived wards in the south west of England. Its intake is comprehensive, but this is affected by three single sex selective grammar schools in its locality.

Sarah Jones, former Vice Principal of Lipson Community College, described the difference the co-operative values have made to the school: “Lipson lives and breathes the values of the International Co-operative Alliance. These values are the basis of our work to develop democratic participation and democratic fellowship in challenging times. We have moved beyond models of co-operative governance, promoting the values explicitly through our approach to teaching and learning, professional development and membership voice. We have also encouraged a number of students to develop their own co-operatives and contribute to the Young Co-operative movement.” One example of this is the Ruptors Street Dance Co-operative.

“The dominant pedagogy,” Jones explains “is co-operative learning and this is common across the school. The Guilds (houses) are the heart of our College. Students are taught the skills of co-operation in their mixed age specialist tutor groups through participation. Through the Guilds and in their main curriculum subjects, students are encouraged to improve as both interdependent and independent learners. To achieve this, teachers promote the use of the ‘PIES’ of co-operative learning based on the work of Jolliffe, Kagan and Gilles. We call these: positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation and social interaction. Dialogue is the key to learning, and in a co-operative classroom this thrives. The impact on learning has been reflected not only in outcomes, but in improved levels of engagement and self-confidence.

“Teachers ‘Lipsonise’ many of the approaches that are marketed as co-operative strategies by engaging in co-operative professional development. Here they reflect students’ learning pedagogies by working in base groups, generating and developing each other’s ideas, trailing them and running CPD for the rest of the staff, and with staff from other schools in our partnerships. This is underpinned by a heavy investment in post-graduate research, drawing upon the work of the best educationalists in the world, and doubling up as an evaluative process for our work.

“Membership voice is very important to us. As a Co-operative College we take the value of solidarity and social responsibility seriously. What damages our community hurts us, and the success stories we celebrate together. We regularly run a variety of student voice, parent voice and community voice groups to ensure that everyone who is a member of our Trust can participate in a democratic, responsible and effective way.

“Lipson has been part of the Schools Co-operative Society, the nationwide network of co-operative schools, since its birth, and has been subject to much interest from other co-operative schools and more recently Ofsted, who have highlighted its work on its best practice website citing co-operation as fundamental to the ‘outstanding’ development of SMSC in the College.”