So much has been written about the adoption of Free Schools in the UK (a close equivalent of Charter Schools proposed for Australia) but so far there are only 170 with 86,000 students across a nation serving 8.2 million school children, with a further 125 new free schools due to open in September 2014.
Free Schools are new institutions built from scratch and need a lot to succeed; highly motivated founders – preferably rooted in the community, skilled teachers and managers, supportive parents convinced of a need for a new school that demonstrates an ability to attract a roll of students – and all this before money and facilities can be addressed.
So it should be no surprise that Free Schools have been slow getting off the ground, and have come in for a high degree of criticism from teachers’ bodies and local authorities. A small number of Free School failures have challenged the Government’s adherence to a policy that is increasingly seen as marginal to mainstream education and over-demanding of policy makers’ attention.
Yet there is a less well known, much quieter revolution taking place in the way schools are run in the UK. A locally led, co-operative model of management has been spearheaded and now accounts for more than 700 Co-operative Trust schools, with a further 230 in the process of adopting this new model. These schools are not new, rather they are conversions of existing community schools, which were previously run by local councils.
They have seized the opportunity to separate from local authority control to become legally independent, employing their own teachers and other staff and providing public education in accordance with their new inclusive structural approach. They continue to work to the national curriculum, mainstream educational standards and national pay and conditions for staff.
They have adopted new governance arrangements that give membership to parents and staff alike - hard wiring a close relationship with their two main stakeholder groups to ensure that they remain close to the people that they exist to serve.
This has all been brought about by a completely different approach to that adopted for Free Schools. No Government policy has been designed to promote co-operative trusts, rather they are a variant on a theme that has taken root because of the enthusiasm of teachers and parents alone.
The manner in which they have come about is useful to know. All schools are able to take advantage of a regime that permits them to establish their own trust that takes responsibility for running the school from the local council. But one school based near Manchester, Reddish Vale School, pioneered the adoption of a trust with a twist. Not only would the trust be separate from the local authority, but it would empower parents and teachers by establishing a new co-operative which was owned and controlled by them.
In common with the many new mutuals providing public services in the UK, this was all brought about through the successful piloting of the new structure, testing different features of the model and refining it from this experience.
Firstly, a policy paper was published by Mutuo and the Co-operative College, which described the ambition for establishing a co-operative trust. This sought to explain to politicians and educational experts, including in Government, what was intended by the pilot. Then, legal and educational experts from the UK co-operative movement worked with teachers at Reddish Vale to decide how such a school would work within the existing legislation.
The intention was to create a model co-operative trust, which could be adapted for use in different schools and then replicated on a free-to-use basis by any school that wanted to.
The new variant model was stress tested, and ran as a pilot, which was observed by others with similar ambitions. Soon, the success of the pilot school at Reddish Vale was clear and this model was then made available to others to replicate in their own communities.
In just a few years, the model has been very popular and has been adopted by many different types of school. Since the first trust was established, a range of forms of the co-operative trust model have been developed:-
- A single school co-operative trust
- A cluster trust with several schools within the trust
- Hybrid models involving academies and trusts
This approach should be looked at closely by Australian educationalists. It shows how with a simple pilot, it is possible to develop a sophisticated and popularly inclusive way of running schools. It does not require new schools to be established and it builds on existing expertise and academic qualities.
Peter Hunt, CEO Mutuo UK
Peter Hunt founded Mutuo in 2001 as the first cross mutual sector body to promote mutual business to opinion formers and decision makers. Peter has twenty years’ experience in the mutual sector, working with co-operatives, mutuals and employee owned businesses. For ten years, he was General Secretary of the Co-operative Party. In 1999, he was a co-founder and secretary of Supporters Direct, the football supporters’ initiative, which has gone on to establish over 100 supporters’ trusts at professional football clubs. He led the Parliamentary teams which piloted four private members bills through the UK Parliament, working with all parties to update co-operative & mutual law and encouraging employee ownership. Since 2004, he has worked closely on a number of public sector structural reforms, including NHS Foundation Trusts, advising both Government and Trust Boards on the adoption of new membership structures. In 2011, he advised the Coalition Government on its plans to mutualise Post Office Ltd and in 2012 published the report of the Ownership Commission, a two year study into corporate diversity. In 2013 Peter was been appointed by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls to lead a policy review for UK Labour on increasing the role of mutuals in the financial sector and wider economy.