Matthew Brown reports on the demise of the country’s only co-operative school
Lowick New School, the tiny Lake District primary which became the first co-operative school in the country last year, has been forced to close. After a three-year fight against closure and a year of striving to survive without state support, the 16-pupil primary failed to raise enough money to stay open beyond the end of the summer term.
‘We have learned a lot, we have achieved a lot and we are absolutely sad and devastated,’ the school’s headteacher Shirley Rainbow told The Westmorland Gazette. ‘But we cannot go on because we haven’t got financial security and we haven’t been able to attract enough new children.’
The story of Lowick’s three-year battle against closure was featured in Democratic Socialist, Autumn 2004, and fills a chapter of the recent ILP pamphlet, Co-operatives and Mutuals: The new challenge.
After fighting Cumbria County Council’s School Organising Committee and being rejected by a judicial review, the teachers and parents at Lowick formed a community co-op last year to try and attract state funding as a new kind of school. They hoped the legislation which has enabled a number of faith groups to open new schools would allow them to be funded as the country’s first co-operatively-run and managed primary. Lowick argued that the values of the co-operative movement stood as its defining ethos, just as religious values are put forward by faith groups in their applications to run state-supported voluntary-aided schools.
After being rejected again by the county council last summer, they appealed to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) to reverse the decision but lost the case in August 2004, just weeks before the new term. Undeterred, the community of Lowick decided to keep the school going as a non-fee paying independent, raising funds from the Co-operative Retail Group, sales of a charity CD, and other community initiatives to stay afloat. Lowick became a celebrated cause of the co-operative movement, but although the staff worked without pay for much of the year, it couldn’t survive.
High and dry
Ironically, while a school that attempted to establish itself on co-operative grounds has been left high and dry by both local and national governments, the number of faith-based schools continues to grow, as weekly headlines in the Times Educational Supplement testify. ‘Secular schools rush to convert’ was just one, on 15 July, the very day Lowick shut its doors. The story reported that some 45 secondaries have applied to become voluntary-aided CofE schools since 2001, including more than 20 Academies sponsored by the church. The first state-funded Hindu school will soon open in north London, adding to the 7,000 Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh schools, three quarters of which are primaries.
Defiant as ever, the Lowick co-operative is not giving up on local education. It plans to run the school buildings as an arts and educational resource centre for the local community and other schools. ‘What the caterpillar calls the end, we see as a butterfly,’ says Rose Bugler, Lowick’s chair of governors.