For thirty years the role of local authorities in the school system has been ebbing away, in favour of greater autonomy for schools. At the same time, the relationship between schools and communities has been weakened, particularly where competition between schools has overtaken collaboration. The picture is varied across the country, from areas where the majority of schools are now academies, to those where most, particularly primaries, are still maintained by the local authority. However, the direction of government policy, and related changes, such as the loss of funding for local authorities, is accelerating the shift towards the academy model and the so called ‘free schools’ favoured by Michael Gove.
The last Labour government used academies as a way of giving a new start to schools that were considered to be performing poorly, often serving an educationally disadvantaged intake. The Tories in contrast see academies as a model for all schools. On taking office they rushed through an Academies Bill and wrote to all schools inviting them to become academies. A growing number are converting, believing that they can get ahead. The effect is that there is increasing fragmentation of the education system. Many of the education support services and administrative services that have previously been provided by local authorities are being withdrawn, partly due to the loss of ‘top slice income’ from maintained schools. Similarly, the way that schools relate to each other and to other local services is changing. The government sees this new emphasis on competition between schools, and between education service providers to schools, as a positive way forward. There are even some in the coalition who believe that schools should be run for profit.
The Co-operative movement is offering an alternative co-operative vision for our education system. There are now over 200 co-operative schools in England, including a growing number of clusters of trusts and academies. Co-operative models are flexible and allow for different models, so that schools can choose to continue to be local authority maintained schools, by becoming a charitable trusts, or they can become a co-operative academy. Co-operative schools embed co-operative values into the curriculum, life and ethos of schools and build it into their governance. As children learn our co-operative values – self help, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity – they gain a better understanding of their role as citizens and how they can help build a fairer society. For the school, co-operative values help to develop partnerships, engage parents and the community, and strengthen the curriculum.
Co-operative approaches could also offer a more positive way forward for those who work in our education system too. All around the country staff in non-teaching roles in schools, or in educational support roles at local authorities, and related jobs like child psychology, are experiencing disruption and uncertainty in the face of the changes in the education system. Forming a co-operative to work with schools and children would help us to continue to benefit from the expertise and commitment of these workers, offering a real alternative to the commercial companies that are springing up.
If you are a school governor, a parent, a pupil, teacher, or perhaps a local councillor or community activist, please do think about how the co-operative model could work in your local schools. If you are interested in finding out more please visit www.co-operativeschools.coop. Similarly, if you work in children’s services and you would like to explore how to set up a co-operative, please visit www.uk.coop/start-co-op
Andy Sawford is the Labour & Co-operative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for Corby & East Northants