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Co-operative Schools

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2015

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. In the usual way, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on securing another important debate on co-operative schools. I well remember the debate we had in October 2013, which I have taken the time to re-read. Other Members who are present today also spoke at that debate. What struck me was that through it shone a real shared purpose on the need to raise standards right across the education system. There was also a recognition that co-operatives are a part of the solution. I will remind Members of some my comments, which support my contention that the Government support the work that many co-operative schools across the country are doing. I said:

“We should, and do, cherish the values of co-operative trust schools”.

I also expressed the hope that I had given—I hope I will do so again today—

“a forceful indication that this Government hugely value the co-operative movement’s work in our schools.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 127WH, 132WH.]

I want to make it clear that those values, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) said in his intervention, are shared by all parties, which is demonstrated by the fact that there has been no attempt to prevent in an ideological way the growth of co-operative schools. In fact, they have seen their biggest growth in quite some time. We have more than 700 of them, and we will be close to 1,000 by the end of next year. That is a huge increase for the co-operative movement in education.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) slightly stole my thunder in recognising that, in her time as an MP, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley has, there is no doubt, been a huge force for good in ensuring that children of all backgrounds, but particularly the most disadvantaged, have their voices heard. It is a great loss to us all that she has decided to go on to bigger and better things in her future career. The service she has given and her commitment to the area is noted and should be applauded. In doing that, I hope that she recognises that we share the same endeavour. I reassure her and other Members that the Government continue to support wholeheartedly the role that school collaboration and partnerships play in achieving our goal of a high-performing, self-improving education system, which includes the role of co-operatives.

The Minister is the acceptable face of the Conservative party, as is the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), but they are atypical. The fact of the matter is that we need a real commitment to change the law. That is what we want. We do not want to muck around. We have got 837 schools. We want a change in the law, for a faster expansion—

I like to think that I am typical of the Conservative party, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman feels the same about himself and his party. It is clear that there is a determination to drive up standards across our education system. He will appreciate that we are in the last few weeks of this Parliament, so there will be no time to change legislation. Nevertheless, we must increase and better understand the evidence base, so that co-operative schools can show the impact they are having and we can possibly widen their remit and potential in future.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley has met Lord Nash, and as part of her exchange with the Secretary of State for Education, she was invited to provide evidence on why we should accede to some of her suggestions, both legislative and otherwise. I look forward to receiving that evidence in due course.

Significant evidence has already been provided. With all due respect to the Minister, for whom I have a lot of time, the problem is that the evidence is there and the opportunity was there with the Deregulation Bill, but this has simply been blocked.

The hon. Lady received a letter from the Secretary of State on 11 February that set out the Government’s position on the legislation and the amendments that were tabled in both this House and the other place. She will appreciate that the position articulated by the Secretary of State in that letter makes it clear that additional evidence or arguments in support of the educational benefits are still required to reassure the Secretary of State that the changes would be worth while. The hon. Lady will appreciate that that issue falls outside my portfolio. The best I can offer is to take back her clear sense of the direction that we need to follow. If she wishes to provide any further and better particulars to support her argument, I will endeavour to ensure that they are shared as soon as possible.

We are seeking to ensure that we are able to deliver better results, year on year and right across the education system. Inspection data show that more schools are now rated as good or outstanding than at any time since Ofsted was created in 1992. Based on the most recent inspections, 81% of all schools are outstanding or good. Since 2009-10, the proportion of schools rated less than good has decreased from 33% to 19%. As part of that process, the values of co-operative trust schools are ones that the Government share. They are good values. They were given a strong airing in our previous debate, and I would reiterate them all today, particularly the importance of shared responsibility for problems and designing solutions and of the people involved in a child’s learning having a real stake in that learning.

I am pleased to note the role of the co-operative movement as a sponsor of schools that require extra support and the increasing number of co-operative schools that are choosing academy status, thereby becoming co-operative academies. Collaboration is a defining feature of the academies programme as well. The formal partnership arrangements for academies and maintained schools provide a framework for joint working in which the lines of accountability remain clear. The co-operative trust model is one of many that facilitate effective partnership working. It is true that the education system is increasingly diverse, and we are seeing many models emerge, such as multi-academy trusts and teaching schools. That is helping to increase the choice for parents and the support for schools. Parents are clearly aware of the co-operative movement in the education system because more of their children are being taught within it. There is clearly value for communities across the country, including my own constituency, in having that model available for education provision.

The hon. Lady asked about amending the legislation on maintained nursery schools—an issue that goes back to the previous Government and the Education and Inspections Act 2006—and I know that she has some regret that the opportunity to resolve the matter was not taken up at that stage. I am sure that, beyond 7 May, she will continue to fight to allow a co-operative trust to support a maintained nursery school in much the same way as it can a maintained school. The Government have supported collaboration in such institutions, with the sector already benefiting from the freedom to create partnerships, should that be the choice. Maintained nursery schools can already work with other local partners and the wider community, and they can federate with other schools and early years providers. A wide range of providers facilitate the parental choice that we all hold dear. That comes with a high degree of autonomy. Similar to our position on schools, the Government require more evidence of educational gain if we are to expand provision into the nursery arena, and we must look more closely at the fact that only a small percentage of overall providers could do that.

One thing that I struggle with is that the evidence base for free schools is nowhere near as robust as the evidence base for co-operative schools. For example, the excellence that has been achieved in a multi-school trust in Birmingham is there for all to see. Why is the Department so resistant to supporting co-operative schools as an alternative model?

We have, of course, seen co-operative free schools emerge as well. The free schools policy is benefiting the co-operative movement and helping to increase the diversity of choice for parents. There is no reluctance, and there is no attempt either to suppress or deny the expansion of any type of school. The issue is one of empowering parents to make the decision to expand provision if they feel that there are not enough good school places in their area. On Monday, I visited Cheadle Hulme primary school, a new free school that will be opening soon to meet the need in an area with mixed advantage but a particular lack of places. That is a good example of how the flexibility that we have provided to the education system is allowing parents, outstanding head teachers, charities, and others with an interest in boosting education throughout the country, the opportunity to do just that.

The hon. Lady opened her speech with a clear summary of what the Prime Minister has said. As Conservatives, surely we should believe in a dynamic process of discovery. Although I admire my hon. Friend the Minister’s noble defence of the Government’s position, is it not time that we allowed some of these schools to expand at nursery level to discover whether they will succeed?

I applaud the passion displayed by my hon. Friend not only today but on many other occasions when he has advocated the co-operative movement, both at Cressex school in his constituency and elsewhere. He will appreciate that I am not the man with the manifesto in his hands, so I cannot give him any reliable information about what reassurance we might be able to provide in that document. Nevertheless, I hope that I am able to put across the fact that, in the expansion of co-operative schools that we are seeing—they are set to get into four figures by the end of next year—there has been no holding back of those who want to take that step. Ultimately, it should be for the individual school or community to make the choice that they feel best fits with the need in their local area. That is the right approach. Through the expansion of the academies programme, with more than 60% of secondary schools and 17%—and rising—of primary schools now having academy status, we have seen a real movement that helps to support and complement the co-operative movement in driving forward quality and higher standards in the education system.

We could get to 5,000 co-operative schools in the next five years if we changed the law and made it easier. Why will the Government not sign up to give so many schools that opportunity?

No limit has been put on the expansion of co-operative schools under this Government; indeed, we have seen a huge rise. There is no cap and there has been no attempt to try to dilute that opportunity. With the hon. Lady’s huge influence in her party, I am sure that when she has some control over the manifesto that is being written, she will make co-operative schools a centrepiece of Labour’s offer. In saying that, I re-emphasise that the Government do hugely value the role of co-operative schools, but more importantly the people who work in them. They work extremely hard to ensure that children in their area get the best possible start in life. That should be the driving force for any of our efforts to support children into adulthood. I hope that we can do that in future.