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Rise of the educational cooperative?

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  • Picture of Robert Rickard FRSA
    Robert Rickard FRSA
  • Education
  • Schools
  • Skills
  • Teaching

A sleepy shire county council in the east of England might not seem the obvious place to resume nineteenth-century experiments into the old-fashioned ‘cooperative’. However, groups of people or organisations working voluntarily together and sharing the fruits of their labours, may well be needed more than ever today, especially since world events have starkly revealed the limits to marketisation, particularly in public bodies.

Public sector ‘free markets’ launched by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s (and tinkered with ever since, by successive governments of all hues), have revealed a paradoxical need for local working between educational institutions, especially in areas where so-called ‘healthy competition’ works less effectively. For example, careers and music services, in-service teacher training, and many other forms of specialist support, quickly moved from being centrally funded to a reliance on thousands of individually-funded schools and colleges buying their services ‘back in’.

There are well-known limits to this model. If a particular head teacher values, say, music or careers’ advice for their pupils, great. If not, those pupils miss out. If an academy trust (a company set up to run groups of schools, geographically designed to compete with other trusts’ schools) happens to have expertise, say, in teaching A’ Level biology, and that school’s head and science department had capacity and were willing to help a new teacher in another school, who was learning to teach, say, A’ Level biology for the first time, then fine. If not, those sixth formers are similarly held back.

Low-cost solution

Despite all these sorts of limits to marketisation, local solutions have been stumbled on.  Some even prove low-cost and popular. In the London Borough of Camden, where I advised on age 14 to 19 provision in 2007, we tentatively set up a network of heads of sixth form and A’ Level (in colleges) and invited a range of local organisations – the British Library, Wallace Collection, Kings Cross Construction Skills Centre, UCL and so on – to support small projects that help heads talent-spot, incentivise and develop the skills of groups of teenagers. This included an art competition, a writing competition and a scheme promoting outreach projects in local universities.

Later on, taking on the same role in a much larger, more disparately populated, local authority in Norfolk, this went further. Informal groups of up to 50 sixth form and college managers, coordinated by the local authority were able to work in ‘cooperating’ networks of English, biology, design and psychology teachers. Networks of local university departments, outreach workers and careers staff in schools supported a long email list of almost every A’ Level student in the county. Perhaps most unusually in the ‘marketised’ academy cosmos, this included groups of the very best A’ Level and vocational teachers, volunteering to go into schools or colleges, to support young and/or struggling colleagues in their own specialist discipline.

The edu-cooperative in action

Three examples serve to illustrate how ‘bottom-up’ cooperatives, locally-led, really can complement the edu-market in key areas in which the public ‘market’ is very likely to be at its weakest:

1. The Norfolk Subject Lead Cooperative (SLC)

This standards-raising cooperative has been running since 2018, developed out of a well-received DfE-funded pilot we devised and ran. Nationally unique, the SLC demonstrated that in any given geographical locality, over 30 competing schools and colleges were willing to offer their archrivals a (strictly delimited) amount of time to support struggling colleagues or departments. Why? Because in return for one or more experienced GCSE or A’ Level teachers giving up half a day per half term, the school or college benefits from free support in any other subject. In particular, the DfE demonstrated – in words and numbers – that supporting teachers in this way is effective in improving their outcomes in that subject. 

Though the idea is ridiculously simple, the detail is of course important in order for it to work including:

  • Some tradition of joint meeting across a county or borough (even if this only consists of occasional heads’ or middle manager meetings);
  • Permission (even a tacit nod) from whichever head teachers/principals’ groups operate in a locality;
  • Explicitly neutral, honest brokerage (someone not representing any one of the schools or colleges);
  • ‘Barter’ funding and simple vetting of the expert teachers by an experienced inspector/adviser; and
  • Sufficient scale and take-up (too few schools and the calls for help – especially specialist ones and post-16 – cannot be met and too many means the bureaucracy starts to be unsustainable).

With the DfE/local authority badges of approval to reassure sceptical principals and heads, Norfolk was able, from 2018 (even during the pandemic) to begin answering calls forSLC support, from around 80 expert teachers, willing to be deployed. 

2. The Norfolk Higher Aspirations Scheme (HAS)

Initially an attempt to get more state school kids into ‘selective’ universities – or any university, full stop – this scheme has been hugely successful. Oxbridge numbers have doubled in seven years. HAS became a locally-respected way of systematically ensuring over 4,000 post-16 students find out what support is available to them, sign up for specialist test preparation workshops, mock-interviews and whatever else is, increasingly, required to get in to the most competitive universities.

More widely, HAS sought to raise aspirations across all the traditional career paths: from nursing to doctoring, charity worker to lawyer and so on. The Scheme operates a very cheap subscription service to pay for a freelancer to run the increasing array of information and specialist workshops, mock-interviews, trips and other activities.

3. Norfolk Writing and Art Competitions

Run since 2015, these ‘mini-cooperatives’ were set up to encourage young writers to attend the local Writers’ Centre (now the National Centre for Writing), and young artists to go to the local art school (Norwich University of the Arts). Both competitions now attract entries from the most vibrant young talents including the Young Norfolk Writing Competition. These activities have five characteristics in common.

  • First, they are low cost and efficiency and involve simple bartering of skills and time and no complex contracts.
  • Second, they subvert local competitive barriers.
  • Third they exploit standard technologies, whether this is email or online meeting applications.
  • Fourth, they involve an ‘honest broker’, a respected, neutral third party, for example local authority officers.
  • Finally, local organisations wanting to nurture the conversations including university outreach teams, local employers and so on.

For anyone, especially those with a voice in local authority policy circles, interested in learning more about how educational cooperatives really do encourage shared activity at zero additional public cost – and help share another bit of post-pandemic hope among your colleagues – feel free to explore the links above; or simply make contact: robert.rickard@btinternet.com

Robert has had a varied educational career: inspector, examiner, consultant and teacher of English, including in prisons and private schools, state comprehensives, colleges and, for and for 20 years, with the Open University. He is currently writing an evaluation of the Cambridge poet, Arthur Sale and is fascinated by the Existentialism of the suburbia he grew up in.

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