Springing back to school

花見 or Hanami at New Longton Primary School, Lancashire

Our thoughts are with pupils, staff and their communities, who are all readying themselves for the week to come. The cooperative education community has worked harder than ever since March 2020 to do the best for all the young people it serves: we know how our members have gone above and beyond in their commitment to equity and caring for others. School staff are on the front line of social justice in our pandemic world. Thank you.

Schools are community assets
I had the pleasure of being in a school last week, and was reminded of how much we use the word ‘school’ as a simplistic figure of speech. The school I visited, while it had all its staff and a fifth of its children still in it, held a sense of expectation and quietness. Because, when we say schools, we actually mean all the people these buildings connect: the pupils, their families and communities, and the vital staff, from cleaners to teachers, who make them work so well. Schools are their network of relationships and their lifeblood is the people in them. And schools have extended their networks in ways none of us could have foreseen.

This last year has shown what assets schools are, in enabling home learning and in-class learning (often at the same time), providing equipment for children at home, sorting out broadband supply, managing food provision, COVID testing, financial support. Some of you reading this are those staff who have had little time off since March 2020, as you have responded in a considered way to every new missive from the Department for Education, and every sudden change and turn. All the while, you have held your young people at the centre of all you do. 

Schools are the evidence base
As I write this, the Secretary of State for Education is considering alternative options for schools – five term school years, shorter summers, ‘catch up’ sessions in longer school days. He indicates that the government will always be ‘evidence-based’ in its decision-making, as though evidence is not subject to interpretation. Early last week, he stated “evidence-backed, traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front of the class are powerful tools for enabling a structured learning environment where everyone flourishes.”

Perhaps some evidence points this way, if we are defining learning in terms of a narrow knowledge based curriculum, or the early development of reading skills. However, classroom staff play much wider roles than as gatekeepers of subject expertise – they are facilitators, coaches, mediators, instigators, creators, instructors, enthusiasts, and story shapers. This is narrow, selective evidence, based on a particular model of what learning is for.

Our young people are the most important evidence base for understanding what learning is for, and for charting the course of this coming year: it is their resilience in lockdown, how they have learned remotely, and their voice we should learn from first. As cooperative schools, we should be ready to hear and learn from our children and young people, and not underestimate their capacity for recovery and regeneration, in spite of the strains they have experienced during a year of turmoil.

Schools create growth
John Draper, Regional Ambassador for the West Region, and Headteacher at Swaythling Primary School, told me last week that his school’s ambition from 8th March was to give children ‘purpose, belonging, fun, and sanctuary’. 

Communities, pupils and staff at cooperative schools have the capacity to shift the narrative about the return to school. The focus on a ‘lost generation’ and filling the gaps through catch up is self-defeating, with the potential to end up like Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox – the journey never being completed.

Instead, we are thinking with our schools about what education should be for, and how we best serve our communities in getting the learning right for our young people. How do we build a rich curriculum that is engaging and challenging, that builds inventiveness, creativity, and imagination? How do we secure the resilience of our young people, and promote their well-being? How do we integrate our own new technological skills into the classroom? How do we really hear and listen to our young people, so that they are democratic partners in school life, who enable us to be more attentive to equity and equality? How do we play our part in building back fairer, and reducing inequality?

The power of our cooperative network lies in the ability to learning from each other and share experiences. We want to hear from you, share examples here of what our member schools are doing, and support you with your priorities and concerns. If you have a story to tell, or advice to share, or some thoughts to work through, we want to know!

Lee Phillips
National Director

Sunday, 7th March 2021

National Conference: looking back, facing forwards

“We owe you a huge debt of thanks.” Kate Green MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education

What a year 2020 was, and we were fortunate on Monday 1st February to have a deep focus on the central learning and challenges of the year just gone, and how we head into the rest of 2021 as educators and cooperators. 

We started proceedings with the Shadow Secretary State for Education, Kate Green. In a wide ranging interview with Jon O’Connor, Chair of Coop Schools, Kate talked about the the role of education in our world, the government and the (lack of) trust it has placed in schools, and the knowledge and skills young people need for their 21st century lives. At Coop Schools, we particularly welcomed her ambition to build on pandemic-focused community activism and the increased value and trust placed by wider society in school staff and teachers.

On Gavin Williamson, Kate declared, ‘I don’t see him as the man who understands the transformative power of education, and the transformative demands we are placing on our education system to rebuild.’ She stated that elected politicians have an obligation ‘to stand with you, invest in you, to recognise and celebrate your professionalism and achievements.’

It was inspiring stuff, and this was shaped up further in the discussion panel with Anna Birley, Policy Officer of the Cooperative Party, James Pope from HeadsUp and Whole Education, and Brian Lightman, now an educational consultant and formerly General Secretary of ASCL. This panel also looked to the challenges of last year, but at the same time had their eyes firmly focused on the future. Schools and Trusts were challenged to hold their ground on what they believe is right for their young people and communities, focus on well-being and care, and build support across networks, through organisations like our own.

Our conference continues on our YouTube channel, with video of the conference as well as other exclusive content. 

Two of our Youtube highlights:

A conversation with Harry Kutty, Chair of the Aspire Cooperative Trust in Southampton and Head Teacher of Cantell School. In the video, Harry address how a school/university partnership with powerful insight and strong values led to a innovative and radical approach to Covid management for schools in Southampton – with interest now reaching across the region into other local authorities.

Vic Goddard, co-principal of Passmores Academy in Harlow, shares his thoughts on his own history, first teaching posts and coming right up to date with a frank discussion of the Challenges of Covid.

You can follow Anna Birley on Twitter and find out more about the Cooperative Party here. James Pope is also on Twitter, and more about HeadsUp here. Brian Lightman’s Twitter account is also somewhere to keep an eye on. Click on their names here to find out more about Harry Kutty’s and Vic Goddard’s cooperative schools.

LGBT+ History Month

The Cooperative Schools Network intentionally values the rich diversity of our members and their communities. Our diversity is our strength. We are therefore proud to support LGBT+ History Month.

We are inspired by the previously unheard voices of the past, the rich contributions LGBT+ people have made to their communities and countries, and the struggles they have overcome to live and love freely. And we stand in solidarity with so many LGBT+ people who face challenges around the world, even as we celebrate what has been achieved closer to home.

For resources to help your Trust and school, look no further than the LGBT+ History Month website. The Voices and Visibility wall chart is a great place to start.

We would love to find out what any of our member Trusts, schools, and communities are doing to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. Please let us know so we can share it more widely! 

A cooperative journey 2010-20

My personal cooperative journey has been a ten-year road trip towards the realisation of a shared vision. The first milestone on my journey was as a delegate to the Schools Cooperative Society Conference, back in 2010.

My own school, Foundry Lane Primary School (in Southampton) was aiming to be one of the new schools helping to achieve the goal of 130 coop schools by the end of the year.

We were genuinely enthused by SCS’s vision to provide support for Coop Schools realising the cooperative values, providing mutual support, and negotiating for favourable services and resources.

For a plethora of reasons this vision was not fully realised until 2019.

In 2011. a group of cooperative schools in the London and South East Region (LASER for short) had pioneered the idea of a regional network. Working together with colleagues in other parts of the country, bit by bit this grew into a template for national networking under the banner of Cooperative Schools Network (CSNet).

The vision and the goals for the group were focused on the simple triple mantra of providing Professional Support, Professional Services and Professional Voice.

Gradually, the coop family of schools grew, partly with my professional support as a regional adviser supporting the development of foundation trusts. As part of a small team led by Jon O’Connor, the mantra was put slowly into practice.

In 2019 SCS recognised the value of the CSNet blueprint, rolling it out nationally as a sustainable support network for the country, divided into four new regions.

From the initial glimmer of hope of 2010,  the realisation has come ten years later in 2020. Despite the challenging times, Coop Schools now have a bright future with the CSNet model.

Andy Withers

Former Head Teacher & CSNET regional adviser


It’s not over yet. The school year, I mean – not the virus.

It sounds like the virus could be around for some time, part of the atmosphere we share, the sense of crisis in the world.

It’s brought out the full spectrum of symptoms of dysfunction in society: antisocial behaviour soared fourfold even before the easing of restrictions in our own backyard.

The self-important have strutted and tutted about all manner of things without checking facts, as usual, self-absorbed and oblivious to the impact on others and the waste of energy all round. The moral high horse has cantered around like a wild stallion let loose. Social media swells like organ bellows, blaring at highly unsociable levels and at all hours of the day. Political performances have become parodies of themselves, issuing seriously intended soundbites possessing little real sense or meaning. Garbled often seems the lingua franca for policy communication.

The Kraken Wakes, the1953 novel by John Wyndham, is worth a fresh read. It plays out like a metaphor for the darkly dysfunctional days we are living – complete with a prophetic portrayal of fearful attack by an unseen enemy, international blame games, climate change, science and government interplay, fearful refugee movement and global economic shockwaves.

What has been equally striking is the quiet, unrelentingly positive activism: our wonderful NHS colleagues just doing the job they trained for, showing their true vocation and commitment over and above – as has the education service.

Communities have come together in so many ways, with the vulnerable protected from the failure of government to provide by groups offering food, care and support. It speaks volumes of weaknesses in our social infrastructure that this has been necessary and murmurs distinctly if you listen carefully that perhaps the pursuit of money, power and egotism are anachronistic in this situation, if they were ever to be admired before.

It has indeed been the best of times and the worst of times.

If it’s been bad for all of us grown ups – and it has truly been a tough year – then it’s not yet become clear how bad it is for children and young people.

Many of our colleagues have reported enjoying the relief of some return to normality, provided under difficult circumstances with considerable effort all round. One head teacher mentioned the sheer joy of seeing small people skipping down the pavement on their way to school, after endless weeks of empty streets in the morning. More and more children are back in the right place and happy to resume education as a cornerstone of their interrupted childhood.

Schools have quite rightly made decisions locally, based on the “art of the possible” – almost despite the sound and fury emanating from No.10 and the DfE – producing guidance marked ‘Distant from Everyone’ in reality.

Being at home in 2020 has less to offer childhood, it sometimes seems: even without the oddity of amateur education at the kitchen table, which has had the unexpected side-effect of increasing respect for the teaching profession.

More and more, we expect non-adults to adapt to adult ways, with less and less time for personal involvement in play, stories, silliness and so on.

During the lockdown, this has been even worse for many children: adult stress and tensions have escalated. The impact on our own friends and family has not been trivial, with irritation bubbling up unexpectedly, the illness itself visiting our doors and a quick chat glossing over the reality of redundancies kicking in from the first weeks.

So, none of us is under any illusion that next year is going to get any easier. Especially if we all have to look in the same direction…. sometimes it’s better to avert your gaze.

Economic hardship and instances of domestic violence have soared: children have had no respite from bearing witness to adult insecurity, abuse of power, fear and pain right there before their eyes.

That’s all going to show up in September, along with new kids on the block – we’ll all be blinking nervously until they realise one day at a time that they are back in safe hands at their new school.

It’s pretty obvious to say that schools will struggle to cope with insufficient recognition of these issues, insufficient funding, insufficient support and guidance: there’s nothing new here, except the toll it has taken on everyone. We will all indeed struggle as a public service to overcome everything which life, society, government policy and the entire galaxy throws our way.

And no doubt it will all work out in the end. Leave it be for now. Well done you and you and you for what you have done this year.

It’s been fantastic to work with you this year and I wish you all the most well-deserved rest from the fray.

A rest is as good as a cure.


We welcome new members who support the cooperative values and work in the education sector. You can join as an individual or as a school or learning centre – and we would welcome you to the family….

The International Cooperative Values and Principles matter to us – not surprisingly. What also matters is how these are turned into good practice for learning communities – we believe we should be “Good with Schools”

To browse the International Cooperative Alliance website which provides a really good explanation of co-operative identity, please click here…

What’s next: asteroids?

As the latest official blog from the DfE seems to suggest that there has been a minor misunderstanding…. we take a look forward to see what is coming up in the new school year.

It is either pretty brave or pretty foolish to try and do so with any morsel of management planning capacity remaining, as we hurtle, shell-shocked and exhausted, to the end of what can fairly be described as the year from hell.

Locusts really did descend on the sub-Saharan African plains, a new and powerful pestilence called CoVid19 really did visit our communities – it was not just a nightmare.

More to follow shortly!