The schools system in England is going through the most fundamental restructuring in the post-war period. Barely a day goes by without further policy announcements and extensive media coverage. The last week alone has seen statements about the new OFSTED regime, and the undermining the value of many vocational qualifications by stating that they will not count towards league tables.

Add to that the rapid growth of the sponsor academies and support and encouragement being given to the for profit providers, and it is clear that this part of the Government’s reform agenda for public service is moving fast and penetrating deep into established structures.

Many local authorities, proud and defensive of the school system they have built up over the years and the support services they have put in place, now face the challenge of moving to a new role. They see strong schools convert to academies and weaker ones pressured to become part of sponsored academy chains, whilst educational support services are reduced as financial pressures bite. Having worked hard on strategic plans for schools capacity through the Building Schools for the Future Programme, the financial viability of some of those schools is now threatened by the rapid marketisation of the system, with new entrants such as free schools, University Technology Colleges and Studio Schools all competing for the same learners.  Schools that under-recruit will accumulate financial deficits as there are not enough young people to go round, yet  the PFI contracts remain secure and the tax payer picks up the bill!

But within this there are also signs that more and more schools see the potential of collaboration and co-operation as a means of securing their future in a more competitive environment. Clusters of schools are looking to combine through co-operative trusts, with large clusters of primary schools adding to the growing network. Others who have felt pressurised in considering the academy route, often because most other schools in their area have done so, have become attracted to the co-operative model for converter academies as a more accountable and values-driven model.

Others have simply seen the dangers and risks of cutting long established ties with neighbouring schools and the local authority, hence the rapid growth of the co-operative clusters and the Schools Co-operative Society, the national network of co-operative schools.

In many cases local authorities are encouraging schools to consider co-operative options, building on established collaborative arrangements – providing models where the strong can support the weaker. This is a direct contrast to the ‘takeover’ model of many sponsor chains, where sovereignty and governance is surrendered and accountability to key stakeholders and the local community minimal.

Other authorities are looking at the development of new co-operative and mutual models in education service delivery -  user driven models where co-operative schools and trusts have a major voice in such structures.

The pace of change in education is accelerating and the decisions of governing bodies over the next 18 months will determine the shape for many years to come.

But it is clear that there is an alternative to going it alone or losing sovereignty and governance for ever to sponsor chains. That alternative is co-operative – working with others with a shared values system and developing a strong autonomous network across the country. With over 200 schools already having completed the process, and many more than that in the process of conversion, it is clear that a powerful co-operative sector is emerging in response to the reforms. If more local authorities encourage schools to examine the option they can provide an important balance in a marketised education system.


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Mervyn Wilson is Chief Executive and Principal, The Co-operative College



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