The concept of a "John Lewis college", an FE institution run by a staff-owned mutual cooperative, was first mooted by Skills Funding Agency chief executive Geoff Russell in late 2010 as a means of turning around struggling providers.
That description does not fit Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMC). It was rated "good" by Ofsted last year, with inspectors praising its "strong strategic position" and "positive and supportive culture". But the college is nonetheless blazing a trail by developing a new governance model that, if implemented, could see it become the first FE college to be run by a mutual co-op. This body would be responsible for delivering education, training and back-office support services under a contract to BMC itself.
As part of its research into creating the new management structure, the college has spoken to a number of institutions that operate similar models, including credit unions, cooperatives and, of course, department store John Lewis. It has explored the principle of setting up an asset trust, meaning the body would effectively manage the college's assets, but not own them. As in the John Lewis model, staff would have a direct say in how the college is run, with the incentive of receiving a potential bonus if it performs well.
Perhaps more surprisingly, principal Christine Braddock would also be keen to see students hold stakes in the mutual body; this would bring "tangible benefits" for both parties, she believes. "If we can capture students at 14, we can get them to buy in to the college," Ms Braddock said. "They would make a commitment to us to undertake education over three, four or five years. At the moment, from one year to the next, we're not sure of their commitment. They would get mutual benefits, such as funding for their future fees. The longer a student stays on, the more beneficial it is." Backing from BMC's corporate partners, including international businesses such as Caterpillar, Samsung and Baxi, could help to facilitate this, she believes.
The model would also lead to employees feeling more engaged and motivated, according to college bosses. "All parties have to push the same way to make it successful. If you have buy-in from stakeholders, people contribute to the success of it. I believe that the net benefit they are getting could bring some mutual benefits back to us. The principle of mutual will bring far better governance to the organisation," Ms Braddock added.
She is keen to throw off another of the conventions of college management by taking a further unprecedented step: paying college governors. The reason? "I want a professional governing body," she insists. If the college is to embark on this bold experiment, it needs a strong governing structure to monitor its implementation and effectiveness.
The exploratory project has been awarded a grant from the Skills Funding Agency, administered through the Association of Colleges' (AoC) FE efficiency and innovation fund. The scheme encourages colleges to explore how they can save money by working more effectively. The AoC's assistant chief executive Lesley Davies believes BMC's proposals could reap huge benefits for other institutions through the increased "motivation and engagement" of staff. "It's a great opportunity for colleges. to look at new models of delivery," she said.
Jon Richards, national secretary for education at public service union Unison, which represents thousands of support staff in colleges, cautiously welcomed the plans. "We are awaiting the college to open formal consultation with us. Unison will actively engage with the college during this process in the interests of students, staff and the wider community. We see BMC as a valuable educational service in the community and quality of service to learners must be the key factor in any decision around new governance arrangements.
"Nationally, we have had mixed experiences of working with social enterprises and don't fall for sweet words and promises. However, in a world where the government is forcing education privatisation, we are prepared to explore alternative models with employers where necessary," Mr Richards added.
While the college's ambitions are lofty, it has much work to do before they become reality. The precise nature of how BMC's structure would look and operate has yet to be finalised. The legalities behind the proposals then need to be clarified and government approval would be needed. But, should the plans get the green light, principals across the country will be watching the experiment with interest.
Co-op is on the up
The mutual model may be new to the world of FE, but the number of co-op schools is growing rapidly. Last summer, the total was more than 150; it is now approaching 200.
They make up the third largest association of schools in England, trailing only those run by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.
Each school allows pupils, teachers, parents, local people and employers to become members of a community-based mutual organisation. They elect representatives to a "stakeholder forum", which then expresses members' views to the school leadership.