A different way to run a school

Aug 6, 2015

What does it mean to be a co-operative free school? How does that make us different and why should you care?

”the school system has become so complicated parents (and the public) no longer understand it” argues Laura McInerney, editor of Schools Week. And from all the conversations we’ve been having with the community over the last eighteen months, I can see where she’s coming from.

Which reminded me that I really need to write this post to explain how our school is run, why that makes us different from almost every other school, and why that’s a good thing.

Free Schools, once open, are essentially the same as Academies. They are funded directly by the Government and are run by a Trust, which is both a charity (albeit one that is not regulated by the Charity Commission) and a company. All manner of people can apply to start Free Schools – groups of local parents, religious groups, existing charities and large, fairly corporate, professional Academy chains. This means that you can’t really make too many assumptions about what a school is like just because it’s a free school. They really are very different from each other.

Single-Academy Trusts (or, individual free schools)

Most individual free schools take the standard model whereby the Governing Body are appointed by the Trustees of the Academy Trust. The Governing Body usually do the day-to-day Governance, the Academy Trust provides a check on their activities and may keep control of some of the decision making.

Multi-Academy Trusts (or groups, sponsored or chains of free schools)

Now here’s where it gets complicated. In the case of Free Schools that are sponsored, or set up by an existing Academy chain, the Trustees usually oversee the Governing Body of several schools. They decide how much responsibility to delegate to the local Governing Body. For some schools, this may mean that most of the important decisions about how the school is run will be made at a distance to the school. For high-performing chains of schools, the expertise in how to run a school well is shared across several schools. Which, it is hoped, will improve standards.

But the problem is that many people (myself included) feel that schools should be a part of their local communities. The criticism that is levelled at Free Schools is that they are not locally accountable. The Governors are accountable to The Academy Trust, and The Academy Trust is accountable to Government, not to the real stakeholders in the school - the teachers, parents and children.

Confused? Allow my high-tech diagram to help…(technical purists, don’t shoot me…)
Standard academy governance structures 

Now for something a bit different: A community-owned model

But there is an alternative. Hidden away in the set of DfE approved articles for Free Schools is the co-operative model. This model is perfect for grassroots, community-based schools such as ours because it provides a robust Governance structure where the Governing Body is accountable to Central Government AND the community, not to board of (possibly-remote) individuals. The people who have the greatest stake in the school’s success are those who have the power to make it work.

So how does the co-operative model work?

The school is still owned by the Trust, but the Trust is owned by its members. Staff, parents (or carers), children themselves and the school’s community are all able to join as members. Governors are drawn in part from these ‘constituency membership groups’.

Children don’t have any legal responsibilities, due to their age, but they will still play an active part in our membership and governance, with the Student Council sending a representative (usually a member of staff or adult volunteer) to sit on the Governing Body.

Still confused? Perhaps another diagram-masterpiece will help:

Co-operative governance structure
Does that mean the Governing Body won’t have the right skills?

No. Co-operative school governance structures are nothing new – in fact there are now over 1000 co-operative schools across the UK (although I think we’re one of only two that were set up through the free school process). There are spaces on the Governing Body reserved for ‘co-opted’ governors, who are recruited to fill identified skills gaps. We also have a Governor appointed by the Schools Co-operative Society and we’ll have one nominated by our Local Authority too. Because we are a part of the wider community, our partners and members help to provide the expertise we need.

Isn’t it overcomplicating matters?

The co-operative structure safeguards our vision now and into the future and reflects the way we’ve been set up. The school will always remain a partnership, children will always play an active role and we will always reflect and represent our local community because that process is enshrined in our legal DNA. We can draw on support and help when we need it, and our Governors are held to account by our members – who are likely to have first-hand experience of what is going on in the school in order to provide effective challenge and support.

Our families and community will co-own a school. They will see what can happen when people work together in pursuit of a dream. It is not tokenary consultation, it is real power and responsibility.

And that’s pretty amazing stuff.

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Feb 5, 2018

So, the news is out. Mariposa is over.

As we lick our wounds and work out what our lives look like now, I can finally write a blog post or two about the experience. Apologies for length – it has been a while!

Jul 1, 2017

Starting a new school is a long process, full of lots of hoops and reports and boring stuff that neither generates much fun or much news. We are often asked by parents for updates, as we haven’t posted much news lately. Invariably I reply with, ‘Well, we’re working on the planning process – having meetings with the ESFA (the newly-renamed Education and Skills Funding Agency) and Harrow Council and working on all the detailed plans for our curriculum and school policies and procedures’.

May 31, 2016
There are many things about our journey to starting Mariposa that have been frustrating, but none as much as the battle to announce our site. We want to be completely open and involve our community as much as possible with the new school. However, for this part, that is completely out of our hands.

Here is why…

Mar 11, 2016
We are back and things are moving fast! Our site is close to being announced, we have identified two new roles on our Steering Committee and we are advertising for our first Head Teacher.

Next page: Site