Mutual society offers sponsorship and pledges to promote equality to pupils. Michael Shaw reports
The Co-op is sponsoring a series of specialist schools which will show children how to run socially responsible and democratic businesses.
The mutual society announced this week that it would provide pound;350,000 to help seven schools become business and enterprise colleges. The Co-operative Group - which has more than 3,000 retail outlets - said the sponsorship would allow it to promote its values of equality and solidarity to pupils.
The organisation is owned and democratically controlled by its members (consumers who have joined the society) and traces its ancestry to a co-operative shop opened in Rochdale in 1844.
Chairman Keith Darwin said the Co-op's principles were not at odds with the specialist schools programme - even though the initiative has been accused of being socially divisive by teaching unions.
Mr Darwin said: "Co-ops are in business not simply to make a profit but to do something worthwhile with the profits they make. We believe young people will benefit from understanding the advantages of doing business in a democratic, honest and responsible way."
The National Union of Teachers has been fiercely critical of the involvement of sponsors with specialist schools. But John Bangs, the NUT's head of education, said the Co-op's offer should be welcomed.
"The specialist system breeds inequality," he said. "But if the Co-op is involved that's good because the values of a public education system are being promoted."
The offer was also applauded by the Specialist Schools Trust, which will work with the Co-op to co-ordinate the scheme, and by Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary.
Schools which decide to take up the Co-op's offer will gain assistance from a special bid co-ordinator. Those which are successful in their application will also gain an extra pound;10,000 a year for two years.
Like all specialist colleges, the schools will also gain a grant of pound;100,000 from the Government and pound;126-per-pupil funding for four years.
A Co-op spokesman said: "The fact that we are forking out pound;300,000 is a dividend for schools."
The Co-op is the latest in a line of organisations which have offered to sponsor specialist schools, including the pensioners' holiday business Saga and recruitment agency Reed.
Earlier this year the Co-op extended its dividend card scheme to 6,000 primary schools located near a store. It gave parents and teachers the chance to pay the dividend vouchers earned by shopping at the Co-op straight back to the school.