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Co-operative schools

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The following is the speech Meg gave to start the debate she initiated in Westminster Hall.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): In 2007, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), now the Prime Minister, said the Conservatives would shortly publish their policy proposals for a supply-side revolution in Britain’s schools system—a long-term response to various challenges and what he saw as educational failure. He said that he wanted to highlight one specific aspect of that revolution: the opportunities that his reforms would create for a new generation of co-operative schools. What better way to give parents direct involvement in their school than to give them ownership—not just as stakeholders, but as shareholders, and as shareholders not in a profit-making company, but in a co-operative built around the needs of local children?

The co-operative model reflects an important vision of social progress that Conservatives believe in: the role of strong independent institutions, run by and for local people. The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted the Conservative party to take the lead in applying the co-operative ideal to the challenges of the 21st century, and announced the establishment of the Conservative Co-operative Movement.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I am absolutely tickled to join the hon. Lady in the debate. She has reminded me what a strong supporter I am of the Prime Minister and how delighted I would be if he completely fulfilled that vision.

Meg Munn: I welcome the hon. Gentleman—a strong supporter of co-operative schools who has advocated for them.

Let us find out a little more about what actually happened as a result of what the Prime Minister said. When the coalition Government came to office, there were 87 co-operative schools in England. Today, there are 834. The majority of those are Foundation Trust schools established under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, passed by the previous Labour Administration. One might expect the Government to trumpet the growth of those co-operative schools. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. What is heralded instead is a hoped-for expansion of free schools: 500 in the next Parliament. That is where effort and money are targeted—not on the parent-owned co-operative free schools, despite co-operative trust schools excelling with parent involvement.

Clearly, the Prime Minister’s words have been forgotten by the Department for Education—and by him. Some might say, “But there are 834 co-operative schools, so the commitment is there.” However, the remarkable advance of co-operative schools has happened despite, not because of, Government support. In debates in the past two years, Ministers have said they have not prevented growth and that they are therefore supporting co-operative schools. However, that is not the same thing at all. I am beginning to think that there is an ideological block on the issue somewhere in the Department.

I have been trying to engage the Department for some time in removing a fundamental barrier to the expansion of co-operative schools. I proposed two legislative changes: enabling schools to register as Industrial and Provident Societies and amending the 2006 Act to enable nursery schools to be established as school trusts.

Let me provide a brief history. In 2013, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill. The two proposals were adopted as Labour party amendments to the Deregulation Bill in Committee in the Commons in February last year. The Labour team withdrew their amendments when the Government indicated that they were willing to work with the Co-operative party to put Government changes in the Bill. With the Co-operative party and co-operative schools experts, I worked with the Department to try to make that happen.

The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), was supportive, but officials indicated that the Department lacked the expertise and resource to take the issue forward. Lord Nash, a Minister in the Department, then expressed limited support for co-operative schools and changes to legislation. Following the reshuffle, the Department indicated that it would not be introducing legislative change.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is, like me, a Co-operative Member of Parliament. Perhaps this is not a question of detail or the Department blocking. Perhaps it is just that the political leadership of this Government is put off by those schools, which are in favour of equality, equity, solidarity, openness, honesty, social responsibility and caring for others.

Meg Munn: I would like to know what is putting the Government off, because I spoke to the new Secretary of State for Education and she indicated that she was willing to consider the issue.

The Department said that it would work with co-operative schools to produce data on performance and look at a power to innovate to try to resolve the issue preventing nursery schools from becoming co-operatives. The power to innovate would suspend the relevant legislation for three years to test whether nursery schools wished to join co-operative trusts. However, since that offer was made the Department has not, despite repeated inquiries, responded to requests for an update on progress. On Second Reading and on Report in the Lords, the amendments were tabled again and ably moved by Baroness Thornton for Labour, but were not supported by the Government. Can anyone now believe that there is any Government commitment to co-operatives in the public sector?

Why does this matter? Leaving in place barriers to the growth of co-operative schools is simply an opportunity wasted. It holds back the possibility of lasting improvement in educational standards, which would benefit children’s education and local communities.

Many schools want to adopt the co-operative model. They have a desire to develop a self-improving school system, where a number of schools can work together and inculcate those co-operative values mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman): self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. We know that some schools, working together in a group, are achieving outstanding results.

The Schools Co-operative Society believes that by encouraging everyone within an organisation to work together they gain mutual benefits. Performance improves and pupils are engaged in the life of the school. The best possible environment for young people to learn and develop is created. Stakeholders in the local community have a say in the way the school is run. The values of equality and equity ensure that the environment is free from bias and that everyone can be the best they can be.

Mr Sheerman: When my hon. Friend and I were together on the Bill Committee—the Minister was there, too—we picked up on the fact that the quality of teaching matters in every school. Has she seen the high retention rates of staff and the contentment of teachers and staff working in co-operative schools? That trickles down to the students.

Meg Munn: Of course, my hon. Friend is right: these are key issues. He is a great advocate of that approach. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) spoke extraordinarily eloquently about the schools in his area and he is, believe it or not, a Conservative, so there is still some support.

Mr Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman is not a run-of-the-mill Conservative.

Steve Baker: Listening to the hon. Lady describe those schools, I was reminded of the success we are seeing in Cressex school in Wycombe. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), whom I work with occasionally, is a bit of a rascal, because Conservatives do support many of the values he described. The disagreement is probably on the margins. I say to the Government that it is time that we woke up to this message.

Meg Munn: I agree. I am not for one minute suggesting that Conservatives do not support those values. In fact, the Cabinet published a document called “Making it mutual: the ownership revolution that Britain needs”, which stated:The conditions are right for a resurgence of co-operative mutual and reciprocal activity.”

That has been said not just by people in the Labour and Co-operative movement, but by Conservatives, so my puzzlement at why we are not moving forward grows ever more.

Steve Baker: I hope the hon. Lady agrees that what is needed is another term of Conservative government so that we can put all those things fully into practice.

Meg Munn: We are getting into the realms of fantasy now, are we not? The hon. Gentleman can hardly expect me to agree to that. What I am saying is, regardless of our party political affiliations and regardless of where we come from, why can we not get together around the issue of co-operative schools?

Why have those schools become so contentious when there is support for them, and not just from the hon. Gentleman? In a previous debate, we also heard support for them from other Conservative Members. The Minister attended that debate.

Why can we not get together around something that is good for our children? Let us do what the electorate so often ask us to do and put party politics aside and say, “This is how we should move forward.” Whether the coalition remains in place after the election, or whether we have a Labour Government or a coalition of another type, the Department will still be there, so let us get the officials working on this now.

Getting back to my specific points on why we should move forward, encouragement is given in co-operative schools to supporting each other and the local community—to give back to others the benefits that have been had and to spread the positive learning experience. There is evidence that young people brought up in that environment continue to contribute positively to their communities long after they have left school.

Children benefit from a positive start in life. That was recognised when the academies programme was extended to primary schools. Children need the best foundation at primary level to realise their potential at secondary level, but we have to go further and ensure that we also get it right at nursery level.

Many co-operative school trusts are based on strong geographical areas. They aim to raise achievement by supporting young people through the education system from nursery age to school leaving age. We have to recognise that children do not differentiate between being looked after, being cared for and learning. Learning begins as soon as a child is born, so we need our nursery schools to have a co-operative approach that involves parents, and then the children can do so well. Would they not do even better if they were part of that co-operative ideal from the start?

While there have been failures with co-operative schools—it would be wrong to paint a rosy picture everywhere—there have also been failures in the academy programme. Co-operative schools have seen remarkable success. More than 80 have been judged by Ofsted as outstanding. That was achieved with no support from Government, financial or otherwise, which is in stark contrast to the many thousands and millions spent on the academies and free schools programmes.

Co-operative schools do not want preferential treatment; they just want a fair and level playing field and the same engagement and support as free schools.

Action is being blocked by the Department. Why? What will the Minister do to ensure progress on the issue and, in particular, to ensure that actions agreed with the Department are implemented? I would also like him to put on the record the assistance the Department will give to fulfil his Government’s pledge to support co-operatives. That pledge has been given by the Prime Minister and two Secretaries of State. An incoming Government must support the growth of co-operative schools.

We need cross-party support so that swift progress can easily be made. Just two steps would go a long way. First, the co-operative model as defined in the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 should be made available to Foundation Trusts.

Secondly, nursery schools should be enabled to form or join Foundation Trusts by removing the restriction in the 2006 Act. The remarkable progress of co-operative schools proves that there is an instinct among many school leaders for co-operation as a means to drive up standards, rather than a dogmatic view that only competition can achieve improvement.

Mr Sheerman: This may be the last Westminster Hall debate where my hon. Friend and I are together. It is so appropriate that she is talking about co-operative schools and she has had such a distinguished career in the House. I congratulate her on all the effort she has put into co-operative schools and so much else in Parliament over the years.

Meg Munn: How could I object to that intervention? Before I finish, on the issue of co-operation as opposed to competition, I quote Franklin D. Roosevelt:

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but co-operation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off”.

The Department’s vision is for a highly educated society in which opportunity is equal for children no matter their background. That is a vision I believe we all share. I thank my colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield and the hon. Member for Wycombe, for intervening and showing that there is cross-party support for co-operative schools. I thank them for all their work to support co-operation and co-operative schools.

I want us to take an important step in helping to make that vision a reality. Let us put aside ideology and dogma, allow real choice in education and allow co-operative school trusts to flourish by removing the barriers that make achieving that vision difficult.

 


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