Frank Norris, director of the Co-operative Academies Trust, writes:
One of the most irritating aspects of my role is that people both inside and outside the world of education often wrongly assume that all academies are the same.
The word ‘academy’ has become shorthand to mean all schools that are no longer maintained by a local authority and have become somewhat independent. But that does not mean they are all identical – I can tell you they are not.
The support The Co-operative gives as a business sponsor to our seven academies (three secondaries and four primaries) in Leeds, Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent is varied and not based on direct funding. What it offers are business and governance expertise, as well as the commitment of willing volunteers from among its staff and membership as governors. All this makes a real difference to the students in what can be only be described as challenging environments. Indeed, with its high-profile brand and co-operative values, the group could have chosen to sponsor almost any schools in the UK, but it decided to support schools that have traditionally been considered difficult and demanding.
The predecessor schools often struggled to acquire governors with the business acumen and ability to professionally challenge senior leaders. Our trust has been able to rely on senior managers from within the co-operative volunteering to take on key governor roles including the crucially important job of chair. It is a significant commitment but their contribution has not gone unnoticed by Ofsted with all academies being judged as at least effective for the impact governance is having on student achievement. The senior colleagues from The Co-operative that have taken on governor roles appear to have the uncanny knack of knowing what is important and focus fully on the important issues until they have been resolved or progress made.
They have also been able to open doors to resources in the business that otherwise would have remained hidden. A good example is the training recently offered to all prefects from the Co-operative Academy of Manchester in leadership development. Having 45 students debating how best to calm other students down had clear benefits for them but they also provided an informative insight for Co-op group staff on how best to manage young people and adults using its food stores on a regular basis.
At the heart of it all are the efforts of teachers and pupils/students but the impact of a business sponsor that is proactive and supportive has been an important part of the success at our academies.
As I say, not all academies are the same – to us the idea of being an academy is not about independence at all – it’s about working together.