I became interested in co-operative schools after speaking to a colleague from the Educational Leadership and School Improvement academic group in the Faculty of Education here in Cambridge. I mentioned I had been writing about my experience of teaching in a school in special measures in North East Lincolnshire. I explained my interest in shared leadership, stakeholder and community participation and governance. He alerted to me to the existence of a growing movement of co-operative schools. It is estimated that there are approximately 850 primary and secondary co-operative schools in England, with approximately 50 of these being academies. Yet they do not get much attention from the media and Government. Although, Warwick Mansell wrote about co-operative schools in The Guardian in 2011, and on the Government website there is a document examining the potential of mutuals in public services. The co-operative school model was originally envisaged as an alternative to academization with an overarching foundation trust being formed to support larger groups of schools. With hindsight many schools joined these groups with the intention of staving off forced academization and some trusts demonstrate different levels of co-operation than others. Protection from forced change has not turned out to be possible, however the model is still sound with many high performing trusts operating very successfully around the country.
My purpose for writing this post is to argue that co-operative schools present a viable solution to address some of the fundamental issues in educational reform. I want to promote some discussion, provide links to resources and ideas, and introduce what I hope to be a line of future research in collaboration with schools and other organisations. But before going further, for those not familiar with the principles of mutuals and co-operatives, it is worth watch the following. If you are more familiar, then read on.
I have a long-term (albeit passing) interest in mutualization. As a result of working in a range of sectors, I have long thought about how best to empower professionals within an organisation. This has led me to believe that professional empowerment and quality of service is more likely when professionals and users are stakeholders within that organisation.
It is worth explaining how my interest in school organisation, leadership and culture relates to my research: research concerned with teaching and learning mathematics. There has been something of a tradition, in mathematics education research, to focus on activities, tasks, and learning acts, dialogue and behaviours. The classroom is all too frequently viewed in isolation to the school and to policy. My first major piece of research was concerned with the professional development (PD) of secondary mathematics teachers (Watson, 2014). I concluded that PD is not sustained unless its aims are consistent with the school culture. PD can facilitate teacher innovation by empowering teachers to investigate and evaluate alternative approaches in their classrooms. But unless there is a culture of innovation, collegiality and collaborative autonomy the effects of PD are not sustained. This research in four mathematics departments, over two terms, illustrated how hierarchical and managerial approaches undermine the long-term impact of PD. It made me realise that effective PD is inseparable from school organisation and culture.
The structure of a co-operative school facilitates democratic input, not only from pupils, staff and leaders, but also the wider community, especially parents. My eight years teaching in North East Lincolnshire, and latterly Lincolnshire, confirmed to me that community involvement is vital (see my blog post here). I accept that this is not easy, the community can be reluctant and may feel that they are not equipped to participate, but it is necessary that schools work toward supporting community involvement. A co-operative approach is more likely to contribute to this as it is a core and fundamental value.
Education Excellence (and Mutuals) Everywhere
My interest in mutualization of schools and co-operative education was rekindled recently by the publication of the Government’s White Paper, Education Excellence Everywhere . It occurred to me that the White Paper, should it become policy, provides an opportunity to develop co-operative education further, since the overall approach may address many of the issues that schools face at present.
In the White Paper, Government proposes to academize all schools in England by 2022. This is in spite of limited evidence that academies perform any better than Local Authority (LA) schools. This also removes the possibility of schools having a foundation status  which is the legal status of most existing co-operative schools. Forced academization has not received a warm reception, except from stalwart enthusiasts of Tory school reforms. People from across the political divide have objected to the diminished role of the LA and reduction in the role of parent governors. The White Paper has also been criticised for not addressing immediate difficulties. Chief amongst headteachers’ current concerns is recruitment and retention, especially in shortage subjects. Teachers’ morale is low, according to a recent National Union of Teachers (NUT) survey, over fifty per cent of teachers want to leave the profession. The sources of dissatisfaction are ascribed to excessive workload.
Interestingly, the opposition are vocally supportive of co-operatives. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, wants more mutuals and co-operatives in the public and private sector. It is also worth noting, the previous Coalition Government has also backed a mutual approach to the public sector.
The thorny issue of parents and community
The White Paper seeks to abandon the requirement for parental governors. There has been something of a protest over this and the diminished role of voluntary governors, as the preferred model moves towards an advisory board of individuals with ‘specialist skills’. In response to protests, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, Lord Nash, presented a softened position.
High quality governance and leadership is especi ally important as we devolve more power from local and national government to schools – and it is critical to our vision of an autonomous school-led system. We want schools to be able to make the decisions about what is right for them – and this includes the expertise and experience that they need on their governing board. That is why we were clear in the White Paper that those on governing boards should be those with the right mix of skills to help improve schools and support leaders and not people chosen simply on the grounds that they represent one particular group, be that parents, the Local Authority or staff (Nash, 2016).
Even in this, Lord Nash, sees governance in terms of the maximisation of outputs rather than in terms of stakeholder participation. For further discussion on Lord Nash’s views on parent governors, see Bennett (2016).
However, it is fundamental that schools fully engage with the communities which they serve. Even if this is not straightforward.
Autonomy + accountability = deprofessionalisation
Underpinning the White Paper’s academization plan is an assumption that school autonomy leads to more effective education. This principle goes back to the 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching. While this sounds appealing, autonomy does not generally extend to teachers. As Glatter (2012) observes:
… autonomy is a subtle and relative concept, varying in nature and degree by context, activity (such as curriculum, assessment, resource management) and level. For example an earlier international study of 11 countries found that when school systems were decentralized institutional leaders tended to enjoy more autonomy but the impact on teaching and support staff was questionable as concerns about their job security increased … (Glatter, 2012, p. 565).
The international study that Glatter refers to, suggests that changes to teachers’ contracts limits practitioner autonomy within a decentralised system. I argue further that accountability contributes to limitations in the way in which teachers can act autonomously. This is supported by Mausethagen (2013), who from a review of research, found that the overall impact of accountability, i.e. a focus on examination results, reduced the relationship-oriented aspects of a teacher’s practice. There was a narrowing of focus.
My own experience, as a teacher, is that accountability leads to a results-driven culture, where the emphasis is on examination outcomes. These narrow definitions of success are concomitant with hierarchical and managerial cultures: a mechanism with which success in limited goals is achieved. School and headteacher autonomy can contribute to this, as borne out by research in the Netherlands (Noordegraaf & De Wit, 2012).
Education Excellence Everywhere and its predecessor The Importance of Teaching talk in terms of outcomes rather than processes. Outputs and outcomes become too narrow, focussing on examination results, rather than young peoples’ broader successes and achievements. The policy intention was to give headteachers and teachers the freedom to use whatever approach they feel is necessary. This was Michael Gove’s promise of letting teachers teach. However, the consequence of this, combined with intense and narrow accountability, leads to diminished professional judgement. The organisational mission – which might be stated in terms of a broad educationally moral purpose – in reality, becomes reduced to delivery of results. Performance management is confined to narrow outcomes. In the most extreme examples, there is high staff-turnover, low staff morale and high levels of stress. It is not unsurprising that since the introduction of policy promoting school autonomy, there have been increased difficulties in recruitment and retention and professional dissatisfaction. It is also unsurprising the response Nick Gibb received at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) conference:
— Schools Week LIVE (@SchoolsWeekLive) April 4, 2016
Not all schools and academies operate a managerial culture of compliance and there are many examples where academies afford teachers professional autonomy. There are many excellent headteachers that retain a school mission that is holistic and responsive to the needs of the community it serves. They continue to ensure that teachers retain their professionalism and promote collegiality. From my own experience and from my research, it is in the struggling school, the school in tough circumstances, the school where examination results are below expectations where problems arise. It might be inexperienced leadership and through desperation, that compliance cultures emerge and a regime of fear and performativity appears. It can also arise as a result of limiting headteachers’ professional autonomy. With the Government’s preference for Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), a chain of centrally managed schools, the headteacher can lose their professional autonomy. They become subordinate to a MAT executive headteacher or CEO.
What can a co-operative education offer?
So how does a co-operative education offer a different approach should forced academization become a reality? Since their conception in the mid 19thCentury co-operatives have been created to meet similar needs to those we are facing with schools today. Leaving aside the detailed area of co-operative management and learning, co-operative education can offer a better way of working together. The co-operative values and principles provide a core basis for a joint vision and way of working that enables groups of like-minded schools to create more value than the sum of their parts. The key elements for school structure in particular are:
Voluntary and Open membership – There is much speculation in the press regarding small and rural schools not being ‘wanted’ by larger academy groups. Co-operatives should be open to membership from any group or schools who share the key values and principles of co-operation.
Equality and Equity – schools need the ability to work together on an equal footing without the need for one of their number to take a lead. Their joint mission and collaborative support will ensure that all will succeed. This actually encourages a ‘bottom-up’ way of working from an operations management perspective.
Member economic participation – through the creation of a jointly owned mutual operation, members contribute to and democratically control the capital of their co-operative. This means that no one school or individual can benefit from any surplus, which is kept for the benefit of all. Services and improvement initiatives can be traded with other groups, particularly other co-operatives.
Democratic Member control – within the defined framework from the Department for Education, there are large elements of control which can be delegated to the individual schools. This is at the core of co-operative values and should always be a major part of co-operative education. Membership can stretch to all stakeholders including the parents and the local community.
Autonomy and Independence – co-operatives work hard to maintain the autonomy and independence of their individual parts which still maintain their link to the bigger picture. This key principle is vital within a school system setup to default to a central ‘top-down’ model.
Co-operative schools and academies under the wider banner of co-operative education are still accountable to the same performance measures e.g. Ofsted and test results, as any other group. The approach internal approach taken to meet these external measures however is encouraged to be fundamentally different.
The key to any co-operative is to buy in to the vision and ethos as the partnership only works if everyone participates. These principles above are not simply a-nice-to-have or a utopian view, they are key principles outlined and used by co-operatives internationally. Foundation and academy trusts adopting this approach, should they wish, can clearly benefit from a well defined co-operative business model and shared vision.
Possible research questions
I conclude this post by considering some possible research questions. I would be keen to hear from individuals, groups or organisations interested in developing a research programme along these lines.
- To what extent does accountability act as a barrier to implementing a mutual organisational model?
- How do co-operative schools ensure that stakeholders participate (for example, parents in low socio-economic contexts)?
- What are the processes and experiences of a school transitioning to a mutual model?
There are co-operative groups across the country offering support, information, advice and guidance for schools who may wish to use a co-operative approach. Further information can be found on the websites below.
Schools Co-operative Society Website – The overaching membership body representing all co-operative schools.
Co-operative Academies Trust – the academy trust operating in the North of England under the banner of the Co-operative Retail group – the well known high street stores
Co-operative Schools Network – Local networks of co-operative educators working on the ground across the country to support co-operative schools
Co-operative College – The originators of the Co-operative Foundation Trust model providing resource and support for co-operative schools
 Based on an estimate supplied to me by Mark Merrywest of the Co-operative Schools Network, 2 April, 2016.
 In England and Wales, a foundation school is a state-funded school in which the governing body has greater freedom in the running of the school than in community schools. Foundation schools were set up under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to replace grant-maintained schools, which were funded directly by central government. Grant-maintained schools that had previously been voluntary controlled or county schools (but not voluntary aided) usually became foundation schools.
Foundation schools are a kind of “maintained school”, meaning that they are funded by central government via the local education authority, and do not charge fees to students. As with voluntary controlled schools, all capital and running costs are met by the government. As with voluntary aided schools, the governing body employs the staff and has responsibility for admissions to the school, subject to rules imposed by central government.