Education has always been a central part of the co-operative and mutual movement – right back to the days of the Rochdale pioneers. And today co-operative values are as important and relevant to education as ever.
As the first Labour and Co-op MP to be a Cabinet Minister responsible for schools, I’ve seen how co-op values can be put into action in our education system.
The co-operative movement’s values are increasingly underpinning many of the best schools. Our moral cause is that every child can succeed, no matter what barriers they face in life. And collaboration can be the key to success.
Schools which join forces with external partners such as mutual societies, local colleges, universities, businesses, charities, and voluntary organisations are already seeing the benefits in terms of higher standards and more motivated pupils.
Many of the great schools I’ve visited over the last few years are those which successfully involve and engage with parents and the wider community. And when local schools work with each other everybody benefits. It’s not just about good schools sharing their facilities with each other, it’s about spreading brilliant leadership too. All the evidence suggests that where a strong school links up with a weaker one, both schools make more rapid progress in a federation than they would have on their own.
So at last year’s Co-operative Party Conference I announced funding to support a pilot of up to 100 co-operative trust schools. Under this unique model local communities can come together to give input, help govern and have direct power over the running of their local schools.
Moving to a cooperative model puts power in the hands of those who know best what is needed in their area. It can give everybody with a stake in the school’s success – parents, teachers and support staff, local organisations and even pupils – the opportunity to be involved in the running of their school.
At last year’s Conference there was only one co-op trust school in the whole country, Reddish Vale Technology College, not surprisingly just a few miles south of Rochdale where our movement was born.
Some people questioned then whether we were being too ambitious in hoping for 100 co-op schools. But in the last 12 months the response has been brilliant. Most trusts take about a year to get established, yet just one year on there are already 25 co-operative trust schools.
On my way up to this year’s Co-op Party Annual Conference in Edinburgh, I visited Hathershaw College of Technology and Sport in Oldham to help launch the West Oldham Co-operative trust. The Trust brings together the secondary school, three primaries, parents and staff, Oldham Sixth Form College, a University, the local NHS Trust, and Oldham Athletic Community Trust. What struck me was how determined the Trust is to break down every barrier and ensure every child can succeed.
Many more trusts are due to ‘go live’ in the next few months, and a total of 120 schools are now exploring the co-operative governance model.
That’s why, as I will say at the Co-op Party Conference later today, I think we can now go further and expand the number of co-op trusts, either up and running or at an advanced stage, to more than 200 over the coming year.
There is no target or cap on our ambition, but I encourage other schools to consider the co-op model and read our simple guide about how to to become a co-op school.
The Tories think that the only way to raise standards and get good schools is for parents and others to set up and run new schools themselves. Under this free market or ‘Swedish-style’ model, weak schools would be left to slowly wither and decline – the Tories are opposed to local councils or central government stepping in to turn things round.
Of course, some parents do want to set up their own school, as a group of parents have successfully done in Lambeth following changes in Labour’s 2006 Education Act.
But most parents don’t want to have to go to the time and effort of setting up their own school in order to have a greater say in how things are run and help drive up standards in their area.
That’s why I think the co-op trust model – together with Labour’s other school improvement policies like National Challenge and Academies – will go from strength to strength. Unlike the Tory free market model we know our approach is not just affordable and fair, but it works too.
Fairness and what works – two key principles which the Labour and co-op movement have shared throughout our history. And as we work together to extend educational opportunity, long may that Labour and Co-op partnership continue.
Ed Balls is Labour and Co-operative MP for Normanton and Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.
This article originally appeared on LabourList.org