The largest corporate sponsor of academies in the country has announced a £3.6m plan to more than treble the number of schools it sponsors to 40 in the next three years.
The Co-op said it was “turbo-charging” its academy plans and would deliver a big boost to the efforts to close the “North-South educational divide”.
It currently runs 12 academies, five primaries and seven secondaries in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Stoke-on-Trent. It says its strategy has been to take on weak schools in deprived areas of the North.
Today, it has announced plans to invest £3.6m to expand its academies programme to 40 schools with backing from the Department for Education.
Of its academies that have been inspected by Ofsted, six are rated as "good" and one as "requires improvement". Five more that have been taken on by the Co-op in the past two years have not been inspected.
The 12 academies currently have almost 10,000 students and employ more than 1,000 teachers and support staff. Under the new plan, that is expected to grow to more than 40,000 students and 4,000 staff.
The announcement comes after a report by Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield last month highlighted that children from poorer homes in northern England face an education gap that starts before school and widens over time.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership has also called on businesses in the North to do more to help close the skills gap with the South.
Frank Norris, CEO of Co-op Academies Trust, said: "Our trust has benefited greatly from the support and encouragement of the Co-op as our sponsor. We have an impressive story of improvement for academies in some of the most challenging circumstances in the north of England.
"Our aim is to increase the number of children benefiting from our unique educational offer so that we can play a significant role in helping to drive up standards."
Co-op academies provide students with vocational opportunities such as work placements, and seven apprentices were recently recruited to Co-op Insurance. It is estimated that 250-300 candidates will join the Co-op by 2022.
The trust's statement said it had: "consistently been one of the highest performing multi-academy trusts in the north in the government’s multi-academy trust league table and has also been recognised by the Sutton Trust Charity as one of the top performing multi-academy trusts for disadvantaged students."