What’s a Co-op Academy?
“Academy” is a legal term. It simply means a school that is no longer managed by a local authority, it’s overseen by a Charitable Trust. A multi-academy trust is a charitable trust that oversees more than one academy.
It can be a lonely world and often schools or academies will join a multi-academy trust for the many benefits that they offer. Including professional guidance, school-to-school support, economies of scale and co-operative/collaborative learning.
Academies first began under the last Labour government and over half of young people in the UK are educated at an academy. They’re very common.
Over the years many myths about multi-academy trusts have grown – particularly as a result of one or two bad apples. Just as with the wider charitable sector, there is always a minority who seek to take advantage. Here we’ll try to address some of those myths…
MYTH: Academies are un-democratic
All of our academies are completely democratic, they’re governed by local governing bodies who are members of the local community. In fact, many of our academies have Local Councillors as governors. They have maintained virtually all of the powers they had as local authority schools.
Our staff have two places on the Trust Board too. For that board to be truly independent we don’t think that our CEO should have a seat.
Members from our sponsor the Co-op sit on our Trust Board and help make decisions. That means by extension Co-op members actually make decisions about our academies.
Every Co-op Academies Trust colleague can also be a colleague member of the Co-op and that means having a vote at the Co-op’s AGM.
Every day Co-op Academies are changing the lives of young people through co-operation.
MYTH: All academies have ‘super-heads’
Every single one of our academies have a Headteacher or Principal. We know they are vital to the success of our academies.
Our Headteachers or Principals are also on their governing body, just like with a local authority. They appoint/choose their staff, organise their budgets and set their curriculum. We trust our Headteachers and Principals to run our academies co-operatively. We’re here to support them.
MYTH: Academies don’t support SEND students, they’re all about grades!
Many of our academies have higher than average additional needs. And all of these have been judged ‘Good’ by Ofsted.
We have two special schools in our Trust, that provide an amazing education to some of the most acutely disabled children. They’re also judged as ‘Good’. This is at primary, secondary and college level education.
These academies are joining us because they share our ethos of a co-operative education.
MYTH: Academy schools are socially divisive.
Our academies are incredibly socially diverse, serving their local communities with no selective admission processes. All of them follow the local authority catchment area and understand the importance of this. Every child has the right to a great education no matter where they live.
Being in some of the most socially deprived areas in the North of England, nearly all of our academies have above average Pupil Premium students.
The inner city academies we support have higher than average EAL levels, with one speaking over 70 languages. Many of these students are new to the country, speak little or no english yet make greater progress at our academies than they would at any other.
MYTH: Academies pay their Directors/CEOs outrageous high salaries
Our Trust doesn’t overpay our CEO because we link the pay of the highest employee to that of the lowest. They can’t be paid more than eight times more than the lowest paid member. Their salary is set by our Trust Board, which the CEO is not a part of.
We pay our staff the national living wage foundations living wage, as a minimum. Our teachers receive national terms and conditions, plus many additional benefits, and we meet with unions regularly to make sure we are supporting our colleagues the best way.
We’re making sure that every penny goes on improving the life chances of over 20,000 young people every single day in some of the most disadvantaged areas of our northern cities through the power of co-operation.
MYTH: All academies are terrible
Our academies are great. We’ve been supporting Co-op Academies since 2010 in some of the most economically challenged communities and through co-operation, they’ve all improved significantly.
Many of the predecessor local authority schools were judged inadequate and we have improved them through a co-operative education to be good or better.
Just as with any sector, there are those that take advantage and break the rules but Co-op Academies are truly different. They bridge the gap between multi-academy trusts and locally maintained schools.
MYTH: Academies are under-regulated and are not responsible to anyone
An independent report found our academy trust outperforms almost 90% of local authorities and other multi-academy trusts. Our Trust is heavily regulated by the ESFA, we also employ an independent internal audit team who visit each academy on a regular basis and we are also regulated by our sponsor, the Co-op – along with the Trust Board and multiple levels of, award-winning, governance.
We also got £3.5 million from the Co-op to help fund our growth, that means none of our pre-existing academies will have to contribute any money.
We have strict red-lines in terms of budgets and reserves. Our top-slice (the amount schools pay to be a part of our Trust) is 3% which is less than most Local Authority schools. All Co-op academies must have 5% reserves each year. All academies joining must have 5% reserves or provide a business plan to show how they will get this within 3 years.
MYTH: Academy Trusts steal tax-funded public land
This just isn’t true. Many academies don’t own the building or the land they are on. Most of this is because of something called a PFI agreement, set up during the last Labour government. This is where the Local Authority agreed for a private company to build/maintain the property for a fixed time and for an annual fee that the academy pays.
If land is owned by the Local Authority, we come to an agreement with them about how it is going to be managed.
Where the Trust is responsible for the land, there is a strict contract which means that the land must be used for a school. We don’t ever sell this land on or force a school to give it up.
Some of our academies have farms and community spaces that are open to the public. Any revenue they make from renting out their spaces stays with the Academy, and does not come into the Trusts pot of money – under any circumstances.
MYTH: Academies are propping up a failed education system
Blaming a failing education system on thriving academies it just a scapegoat for the chronic underfunding of schools for the last decade.
We fully support more regulation for academies and trusts. We publish more information than we are required to in order to be transparent and accountable. On our website you’ll find financial reports, annual reports and our strategic plan for the next 4 years.
We are so committed to transparency that we not only want you to know where we have been, we want you to know where we are going.
MYTH: Academies are capitalist or ‘backdoor privatisation’
Believe it or not, we don’t make any profit from our academies – we’re not allowed to. Any money we get is put straight back into funding school improvement.
The Co-op gave us £3.6million to invest in helping more students across the north, going from 12 academies at the time to almost 40 by 2022. That growth funding ensured we didn’t take from any funds that were dedicated to providing front-line services for school improvement.
MYTH: Academies give contracts to their friends and families
We have strict rules in place about how we recruit employees and also what providers/contractors we can use. Academies are even more regulated than local-authority schools in that respect.
We don’t employ or use anyone’s services because they’re a ‘friend’ – that’s a conflict of interest and they’re all declared on all of our websites.
MYTH: Academies don’t fit the co-operative ethos
The Co-op’s commitment to education is nothing new, when the co-operative movement started in the mid-nineteenth century, it provided educational activities for members and their families.
The Co-op is a disrupter, we work in those areas that have been taken advantage of – just as the Rochdale Pioneers did. Our academies provide a caring and inclusive environment for a range of young people from 4-18 years old, creating the co-operators of tomorrow.
… and we’re pretty proud of that!