Parents, especially of primary-age children, are concerned about the introduction of new and revised tests. Teachers are concerned about workload, curriculum changes and changes in pay and conditions. Headteachers are concerned about forced academisation, high-stakes accountability and the recruitment and retention of teachers. Other stakeholders, for example, school governors, the local community and education academics all have concern about the rate of reforms in schools. And out of these reforms no one is really quite sure where state education is headed: is it privatisation, as critical commentators suggest? Will schools be accountable to the communities they serve? Can parents, pupils and teachers have any say in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment? It seems the answer to these questions is “no”.
Schools are increasingly being directly funded by and accountable to the Department of Education (DfE). As more schools become academies this will become widespread, ubiquitous even. State education will take the form of an outsourced service, parents could end up with the same kind of relationship with their children’s school as they do with their broadband provider’s customer service department. Even when headteachers set out to engage with parents and the community, they are, in many cases, as a result of narrow accountability measures, restrained.
Thankfully there is growing opposition. National campaigns about testing such as, Let Our Kids Be Kids, are gaining attention as a result of – in the case of LOKBK – parental anger and concern about testing in primary schools. But parents have different views to say teachers, and most certainly parents will have different views among themselves. In fact each stakeholder group will have its own perspective and concern. But at the core there is a sense of powerlessness; groups have little or no say in how their school is run. It seems as time goes by, there is an increasing democratic deficit in our education system. Communities have little chance to influence their school’s philosophy, aims and mission.
The Cambridge Campaign for Education has been established to address these concerns, to campaign on issues like testing, and in the longer term to campaign for a more democratic approach to education. It is a campaign group where parents, teachers, headteachers, educators and students can organise in order to have a greater say, together, in how our schools are run.
It was initiated and convened by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) andhas held two public meetings, so it is in its infancy. While the emphasis has been on schools and tertiary education, the discussion in the two meetings has included higher education, prompted by the possibility of higher tuition fees. The following campaign themes have emerged from the meetings:
the need for campaigns on particular issues, for example primary testing, baseline tests and SATs.
To provide a forum for stakeholder groups parents, teachers, headteachers, governors, advisors, academics and students to openly discuss different perspectives, develop expertise and build solidarity.
To build a movement for change, for democratically run local education services.
To design and support local democratic and mutual approaches to school organisation.
Change could not be initiated endogenously because subordination never involves lower autonomy than when it occurs in a relationship of mono-integration. Dependence on a single supplier of resources makes education extremely vulnerable and highly responsive to control by the ownership group (Archer, 2013, pp. 63 -64).
Archer uses the concept of mono-integration to describe how education has a single relationship with another social institution. In England schools (acadamies) are mono-integrated with the Department for Education (DfE). The DfE is the single supplier of resources. The implication is that school autonomy is vulnerable:
The dominant group defines education in relation to its goals and monitors it closely to ensure that it serves these purposes (p. 64)
Interestingly, Archer is referring to education in a historical context. She is describing education in eighteenth century England, where the dominant group is the Anglican Church. She goes on to say that in the present day considerations of change would have to take account of the contributions of the professional body of teachers. Yet in the last five years, how much of this professional voice and expression has been diminished? Leading to the mono-integrated characteristic of the eighteenth century. It suggests that present day school autonomy is very limited, if in fact it is real at all.
Archer, Margaret, S. (2013). Social Origins of Educational Systems (2nd Ed). Routledge: Abingdon.
I became interested in co-operative schools after speaking to a colleague from the Educational Leadership and School Improvementacademic 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.
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:
Delegates guffaw when @NickGibbMP says he's creating profession-led system. Some of the biggest laughs from leadership #ATLConf2016
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.
 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.
Bennett, M. (2016, March 25). The Schools Business. Retrieved from http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/03/25/matthew-bennett/the-schools-business/
Glatter, R. (2012). Persistent Preoccupations The Rise and Rise of School Autonomy and Accountability In England. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 40(5), 559–575. http://doi.org/10.1177/1741143212451171
Mausethagen, S. (2013). A research review of the impact of accountability policies on teachers’ workplace relations. Educational Research Review, 9, 16–33. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2012.12.001
Nash, J. (2016, April 4). Our school reforms. We want parents to be more involved in their children’s education – not less. Retrieved from http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2016/04/john-nash-our-schools-reforms-we-want-parents-to-be-more-involved-in-their-childs-education-not-less.html
Noordegraaf, M., & De Wit, B. (2012). Responses to Managerialism: How Management Pressures Affect Managerial Relations and Loyalties in Education. Public Administration, 90(4), 957–973. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9299.2012.02068.x
Watson, S. (2014). The impact of professional development on mathematics teachers’ beliefs and practices (eThesis). University of Nottingham. Retrieved from http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/27744/
One thing I have noticed in my relatively short time working here in Cambridge is that it is a strongly democratic university. Or at least it aspires to be. There is broad discussion over issues, where, especially if they are contentious, members of the university are asked to vote to reach a decision. Last year there was much debate over the funding of a chair to commemorate the life and work of Stephen Hawking. Potentially 3000 academics and academically-related staff could vote as Members of the Roll of the Regent House. Another feature is the academic freedoms that individuals working in the University enjoy, with which I feel a sense of duty and responsibility. I am proud of the values the institution preserves and sustains and, of course, very proud of the university of which I am part. All of this, I feel, brings out the best in me as a professional.
I argue that for schools to improve, they need to move away from hierarchical management structures, to democratic and distributed leadership models, much like the University of Cambridge. Schools need to empower teachers to have control over their professional work and ensure that they have involvement in setting the direction of the school’s mission. This is an alternative model of cooperative school-led self-improvement as opposed to the in-vogue top-down neoliberal school-led system in current policy.
Now you may very well point out that I work in an elite institution and as such it is in a unique position. I wouldn’t disagree, it is elite and there is much that can be said about the extent to which it is socially just. That debate, however important, is for another day. What I want to consider is how to get the best out of education professionals working in schools. My working model for this are the democratic principles underpinning the culture of the University of Cambridge. I return to this later, but let me a describe a case, a coastal school.
It was not so long ago that I was working in very different kinds of institutions, state-funded secondary schools in North East Lincolnshire. The first school I worked in, was, as a consequence of an inspection by OFSTED, identified as failing and placed in special measures . I recognised, along with a number of other colleagues, that there were many things in the school requiring improvement.
However, the school was (and still is) located in a community with a high proportion of disadvantaged white British working class families. There was also a shortage of teachers; few, I imagine, consider moving to a coastal area in economic decline to work in a challenging school. Until the 1950s, the principle town in North East Lincolnshire, Grimsby, harboured the world’s biggest fishing fleet of 600 trawlers. Conditions in the town are different since the decline of the fishing industry, currently a quarter of young people are unemployed, that is almost twice the national average .
Through several generations the availability of secondary education has not mitigated the lack of opportunity and not led to social and economic improvement. It is unsurprising that there is a predominant culture of educational disaffection amongst the considerable group that can be described as disadvantaged. It is ironic that there exists free high-quality education, yet many in the community have little belief that it is going to benefit them. What is more, if you grow up in a family where your parents, grandparents and possibly even great grandparents have not been successful at school then it is hardly going to impact positively on your own perspective and educational self-efficacy. Not only do you experience, day-to-day, models that are negative, there may be few opportunities to develop some of the prerequisite skills to access a curriculum that is based on, principally, the curriculum philosophy of a sixteenth-century grammar school.
This is not the soft bigotry of underachievement, as it been characterised by current government ministers, it is the reality of underachievement. Moreover, it cannot be solved by implementing a more challenging curriculum, setting ever higher targets, increasing the amount of testing or parachuting in expert teachers. The solution to this problem is for highly qualified teachers who have a long-term commitment to the community to find solutions to the educational challenges in their locality and turn them into a practical and cost-effective educational project.
What is needed is a community-based cooperatively organised school, fully staffed by educational professionals with considerable professional training. Teachers require confidence, courage, knowledge and intellect to develop a school and curriculum that fully meets the needs of the community. They require similar levels of disciplinary knowledge to medical practitioners. Where doctors have anatomy, physiology and a range of medically-related scientific knowledge; teachers need knowledge of education, psychology, sociology, anthropology and philosophy, for example. These provide the knowledge base that combined with practical and practice-based implementations would start to bring about sustainable change.
This all contrasts with the craft-level curriculum-delivery model that is being surreptitiously introduced by the present government as part of its school-led agenda.
Over the last 25 years, and at least since the introduction of Local Management of Schools as part of the 1988 Education Reform Act, schools have been increasingly modelled as market entities. New Labour’s deliverology  introduced accountability and attempted to distil educational outcomes into reductive targets to ensure central policies were delivered. This represented a commodification of learning. In 2010 the newly elected Conservative Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, retained much of New Labour’s accountability but removed the agencies that supported the delivery of policy, like for example, the National Strategies. This means schools are responsible for both outcomes and the processes. Effectively academies sub-contract to the Department for Education for the delivery of education. It is looking less like a public project.
So these are the factors that have led to hierarchical and managerial structures in schools and academy chains, be-suited corporatism is symptomatic of the increasing privatisation of state education. This in turn has led to deprofessionalisation since educational purpose is largely determined by accountability demands and the definition of improvement processes by school leadership teams. Teachers’ work is increasingly moderated by managers’ interpretations of accountability frameworks and certain kinds of performances become more valued over others . Compliance with leadership-sanctioned institutional cultures is valued over and above the kinds of teacher behaviours that have educational value and the pressure to ensure students perform well in high-stakes examinations is considerable.
The emergence of this kind of management structure, approach and culture in schools runs counter to effective improvement. It may result in short-term gains: improvement in examination results and better OFSTED inspection judgements, but in the long term it does not have an impact on the education of the communities like the one I described earlier. For long-term improvements teachers and schools need to be holistic and responsive.
This brings me back to where I began. The kind of culture we need in schools must permit teachers to be responsive to the context in which they work. This requires a democratic, distributed-leadership approach that is oriented toward the professional, like we have in Cambridge. School management structures need to be flattened, so that those holding senior leadership positions are more responsive to the processes within the school and are able to support the interpretation, analysis and decision making of teachers. There would be no need for a non-teaching executive principal with a six-figure salary. Senior leadership, would be simply that, experienced teachers guiding, supporting and helping analysis and interpretation: a group of senior professionals with representation and participation from the junior and support staff. Decision making would be collaborative, consultative and collegiate. Bigger issues might involve a vote amongst all stakeholders.
And with this level of professional responsibility and fulfilment, there would be no recruitment and retention crisis.
 The Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) lowest category following inspection is special measures. Schools placed in special measures are subject to regular further inspection.
 Bagehot. (2015, April 15). The view from Grimsby: A coastal clue as to why the economic recovery isn’t producing votes for the Tories. The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21649463-coastal-clue-why-economic-recovery-isnt-producing-votes-tories-view
 see Bangs, J., Macbeath, J., & Galton, M. (2010). Reinventing schools, reforming teaching: from political visions to classroom reality. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis.
 Au, W. (2007). High-stakes testing and curricular control: A qualitative metasynthesis. Educational Researcher, 36(5), 258-267.
Update 14 December 2016
Useful podcast from the New Economic Foundation on Coastel Communities https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/weekly-economics-podcast/id970353148?mt=2