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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Prospects for co-operatives in the Sheffield City Region

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Meg Munn MP was invited to speak at an event hosted by the Social Economy Forum. The focus was on the prospects and opportunities for co-operative developments in the Sheffield City Region. Ed Mayo, Secretary General at Co-operativesUK, also spoke.

Meg’s contribution follows:

Good afternoon. Let me begin by thanking David Childs and the Social Economy Forum for hosting this event and offer my apologies for missing most of what I am sure was an inspiring speech by Ed.

I have always been proud to be a Labour Member of Parliament, but I am more proud to be a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament. I joined the party not long after I joined the Labour Party as a teenager here in Sheffield. I am delighted to see so many co-operators here today and I welcome the chance to discuss the future of co-operatives across the Sheffield City Region.

Much has been said about the contribution of co-operatives to our local economy. My focus today is on how I believe we should prepare our young people to also contribute positively to our region. We can do this by instilling in them clear values. Values such as business and enterprise are important but I believe that these coupled with the values of co-operation can offer a great deal. I would like to see this develop and grow in all schools, but specifically by more of our schools becoming themselves co-operative schools.

The current education system is more fragmented than at any point in the past 25 years. There are dramatic variations in schools’ success, and in the accountability they have to the communities they serve.

Many of Labour’s new academies showed that greater freedom, coupled with community control, can be a winning formula. They turned poor schools around, transforming the prospects of their students. However with this government we have schools forced to become academies, many taken over by expansion-hungry chains which limit the involvement of parents, students and the wider community in how they are run.

In my constituency of Sheffield Heeley all five of the traditional secondary schools have now converted, or are in the process of converting, to academies. As an advocate of choice in education, this is an alarming trend. I believe that there is not just a space, but a desperate need, for a community-based alternative. Co-operative schools can provide this alternative.

So what are co-operative schools?

Launched by the last Labour Government, the co-operative model ensures that everyone with a stake in the school’s success parents, teachers, support staff, local community organisations and pupils have the opportunity to be involved in running it. Importantly through their new legal status they become embedded in the community, not subject to the whims of an educational chain run by people who have don’t understand the area.

They are a growing phenomenon across the country and their numbers continue to rise; by September 2013 the total number of co-operative schools had reached 629. In terms of economic benefit, a 2012 report by Co-operativesUK showed the co-operative schools sector to be one of the fasting growing areas of the UK economy.

As well as providing a framework for greater accountability and responsiveness, co-operative schools benefit from their links to the wider co-operative movement with its tens of millions of members. Co-operative schools are well placed to raise aspiration and attainment by instilling in pupils co-operative values such as self-help, social responsibility, equality and a global outlook, delivered within a faith-neutral environment.

Emerging results show co-operative schools provide a well-rounded curriculum and equip pupils with the social and personal skills they need to thrive. This is a model that delivers academic excellence driven by local accountability.

Since Reddish Vale Technology College in Stockport became the first co-operative trust school in England, we have seen real strength and depth emerging in parts of the country, including the south-west, in parts of Yorkshire and the Humberside and the north-west.

There are endless examples of areas where the co-operative model has proved to be successful. I will touch on a few. In rural Cornwall, a group of schools has joined together to pursue options that protect their staff, pupils and values. The head teachers from Sir James Smith School; Helston Community College and Upton Cross Primary School have all praised support from the national network and NASUWT, speaking out about the importance of solidarity and allowing local people to work towards a shared vision and mutual solutions in education. 

Lipson Community College in Plymouth was an early co-operative trust school, now a co-operative academy. Its Parent Voice was recognised as ‘outstanding’ in an Ofsted survey on parental and community engagement. The Student Voice at de Vinci College in Derby, a co-operative trust school, gives learners a say in the direction of the school. Students sit in on interview panels and join the staff on training sessions to learn what makes a great lesson.

There is already a generation of young co-operators emerging due to their active involvement in co-operative schools. They will carry these values through higher education and employment. These values and this spirit of co-operation I believe should be part of the future development of the Sheffield City Region economy.

Other parts of the country are seeing a rapid rise in the number of co-operative schools with, for example, a cluster in the South West, where the co-operative model was seen as a particularly appropriate response to the challenges faced by the county’s small, rural schools.  We are not yet seeing this happen in Sheffield or across Yorkshire in great numbers, although we have some examples - Barnsley has a Pioneer Academies Co-operative Trust, a multi school trust, ensures that the community is at the heart of each of the schools. 

Barriers to overcome - I have pressed government to do more to encourage and support co-operative schools.

I introduced a Bill into parliament to enshrine in legislation the structure of co-operative schools, to allow communities a real say in their local schools. Currently the legal forms of co-operatives are determined as Industrial and Provident Societies, or co-operative or community benefit societies. There is no provision in the relevant Acts for co-operative schools.

To secure a solid foundation for their continued development and expansion, we need to formalise the framework within which they operate. I have called on the government to work with me and the Co-operative Party to bring forward legislation to ensure co-operative schools can work on a level playing field with other school structures.

Initially the government did seem receptive to my Bill with the Minister indicating that he thought that this was something they should be looking at. I am, however, currently chasing the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education on his commitment to discuss this matter further with me. 

I am confident, however, that if this government fails to support co-operative schools the next Labour administration will introduce legislation to strengthen the legal framework for co-operative schools. This is an important step to ensure the co-operative model is able to develop to serve local communities.

Co-operatives schools can benefit to the Sheffield City Region. Increasingly many schools are developing strong links with local organisations and businesses. Given the number of co-operatives and social enterprises in Sheffield and the region I would like to see more contact between them and local schools. Perhaps the experience of co-operation up close might encourage more of our schools to consider this as a model for themselves.

In this way we could ensure that more of our children learn firsthand about the benefits of co-operation and more of our schools remain firmly part of their local communities.  

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