The threat of a good example

MATTHEW BROWN reports from Lowick, where teachers, pupils and parents have battled local and national government to set up the country’s first community co-operative school.

In her book Reclaim the State (see Barry Winter’s review), Hilary Wainwright describes a number of ‘experiments in popular democracy’ from different parts of the world, attempts by local people to establish grass roots, democratic control over various aspects of their lives.

This is the story of one group of people who have been struggling to gain community control of their local school in the face of local authority  plans to close it. Their ‘experiment’ has only just begun and it is impossible to say whether it will succeed in the long term.

However, after suffering defeat at the hands of both local and national government, the people of Lowick and their supporters believe the example they will provide as the country’s first community co-operative school, will become a ‘beacon’ (to use one of the government’s favourite terms) for education in the future.

From the wooden gate at the top of the sloping tarmac playground next to Lowick primary school you can see beyond a small copse of trees and the dry stone wall that surrounds the school grounds to the green hills of Coniston and the wooded fells on the far side of Crake valley.

Inside the school building, made of the same slate grey Lakeland stone, there are two small classrooms – one for infants, one for juniors – crammed with every conceivable sign of education and youthful enterprise: large, multi-coloured alphabets decorate the walls; photos of past pupils line the small stair case; books of all sizes and shapes are stacked at angles on labelled shelves; and a giant coloured tropical fish hangs from the ceiling.

It’s July, the last week of the summer term, and the school is filled with sunlight and colour. Inside and out, it’s an idyllic scene. But for Lowick’s two teachers, 19 pupils, and numerous parents and supporters this is the end of a far from idyllic journey, and the start of whole new era – not just for them but, so their supporters claim, for schools across the country.

It may seem unlikely, but this tiny Cumbrian primary, perched on the edge of a rolling valley on the south side of the Lake District, is at the forefront of a revolution in British schooling. On 31 August Lowick School ceased to exist, ordered to close by Cumbria County Council because of ‘surplus places’ across nine schools in the area. At the beginning of September, however, Lowick New School emerged from the rubble of a three-year struggle as the first of what its friends and supporters hope will be a new kind of school – run by a local co-operative and infused with co-operative principles and values.

Although, in August, it failed at the final hurdle to win state support – either from the local authority or from the Department for Education and Science – Lowick is still being hailed as a breakthrough in public service provision by the co-operative movement, a model of how to put control of schools in the hands of the communities they serve. Mervyn Wilson is principal of the Co-operative College in Manchester and co-author of a 2003 pamphlet endorsed by Charles Clarke, called Co-operation and Learning. ‘Five years down the line, this will be seen as pioneering,’ he says. ‘Lowick is important because it is the first one that’s trying it, but others are not far behind. They are blazing a trail for others to follow.’

For headteacher Shirley Rainbow that trail has been ‘a long, hard road’, one littered with campaign meetings, hearings, appeals, and disappointing decisions. ‘We’ve been at it for two and a half years, and now we are rising from the ashes,’ she says. ‘We know we are going to be unique and that’s so exciting; there isn’t any other school like us.’

The story of Lowick’s fight against closure and battle to re-emerge in a radical form is a saga in itself, a tale of a small community in conflict with a distant and disdainful authority, complete with all the worst villains of local politics – inaccurate reports, disputed statistics,

lost papers, political interference, suspicious phone calls, conflicts of interest, and the silent hand of the church. More importantly, it’s also the story of a group of people who came together to save one of their few local assets, and grew into a community of engaged and politicised citizens who have devised a new model of democratic education and rural regeneration.

‘It’s been blood, sweat and tears,’ says Rose Bugler, parent, chair of governors at the old Lowick school, and a driving force behind the co-operative venture. ‘It’s been a white knuckle ride at times, but we genuinely think we’ve created something that is unique, and we know it can work. It’s absolutely an idea whose time has come.’

Beyond memory

Lowick school was built by public subscription in 1856 when local people raised £300 among themselves to erect the building. According to a trust deed dated 1757, the site had belonged to the community for use as a school ‘beyond the memory of man’. Not surprisingly, there’s still a strong sense locally that the school belongs to the village.

However, in the 1950s a schedule signed by the Queen transferred trusteeship to the Carlisle diocese of the Church of England, meaning any proceeds from rent or sale would go to the church. Until 31 August this year, Lowick has remained a state-run, voluntary controled, CofE primary school.

Shirley Rainbow arrived as headteacher from County Durham in 1985, and has seen Lowick follow the path of many a small rural primary, its numbers rising some years, falling others. ‘At times we’ve had 24,’ she says. ‘We’ve been up to 50, and down to 19.’ Throughout her 19 years, however, the school has remained a focal point for Lowick’s scattered 200-strong community, alongside its 17th century pub and 19th century church. During the foot and mouth crisis a few years ago it was at the school where people gathered to talk.

‘People needed a place to come and make contact with each other,’ says Shirley. ’The school became the focus for the community; it developed this lovely cross-generational pull.’

Lowick school was highly prized, and not only by the locals. It was shortlisted for the village school of the year awards and praised by Ofsted. After its last inspection in 1999, the lead inspector told staff, ‘This is a school worth fighting for.’

So, in 2001, when the education authority announced its intention to close Lowick the community rallied round. ‘There was absolute uproar,’ says Shirley. ‘At our first meeting, the school was full. We had nearly 100 people in it, including parents, past parents, parish councillors, future parents … and nobody was for it at all. But the officers took not a blind bit of notice.

‘I think they just thought the school would fizzle out. It’s happened in lots of rural schools, where people just lose hope. Well here, nothing could have been further from the truth.’

In places like Lowick a school is vital to maintaining a ‘genuine’ local community, says Shirley, it’s a reason for people live and work in the area. ‘We don’t want to become a Disney park,’ she says, gazing at the hills and valleys that attract thousands of visitors every year. Clearly, many people felt the same.

A band of 50-plus villagers, parents, governors and teachers worked tirelessly to prepare the school’s case. They took it to Cumbria County Council’s cabinet, then to its school organisation committee (on which the church, their landlord, has a powerful voice). When it turned them down they called for a judicial review, but the judge lost the papers so they went back to the SOC. Even when they seemed to be winning over some councillors the hidden hand of officers appeared – mobile phone conversations took place in toilets and opinions changed.

On each occasion the campaigners did more research and returned with fresh arguments. They learned about the minutiae of education policy, the regulations governing calculations of surplus places, the recommended maximum distances children are meant to travel to school … ‘People didn’t understand any political processes before they started this,’ says Rose. ‘No one knew who their district councillors were, who the parish councillors were. Now everyone knows who everyone is. We’ve been politicised, even the kids have.’

It was all to no avail – at least that’s how it seemed when, in September 2003, the council finally announced the school had just one more year. ‘It was if they had given up on regenerating the community,’ says John Willis, a parent and relative newcomer to the area. ‘We need to keep young people in the area to keep the local economy going. To do that we need families and to have families we need schools.’

Radical notion

By this time, however, Rose had come up with a radical notion – let them close it, and then re-open as a new school, run by and for the community. Rose works for a rural regeneration agency called Voluntary Action Cumbria, supporting social enterprise in small communities. ‘I suddenly thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could find a co-operative solution to this?”,’ she says. ‘We’d been working like a co-op anyway throughout the process, and the school had already become the hub of an energised collective spirit.’

They formed the Lowick and Blawith Educational Trust and secured a £28,000 grant from the co-op movement’s charitable foundation, Co-operative Action, to examine how a co-op school could work. They discovered there had never been a state-funded co-op school in the UK before, but that the 2002 Education Act allows ‘minority groups’ with a ‘distinctive ethos’ to propose new schools for state funding. It’s this legislation which has led to the increase in faith schools, and has recently enabled a Montessori school in Brighton to gain state funding.

‘We thought, our community co-op can be our minority group,’ explains Rose. ‘And our ethos is that of the co-operative movement – the principles and values it has built up over more than 100 years. There are other schools that apply co-operative ideas in their teaching methods, but there are no schools that apply them throughout their operation – in their curriculum development and in the management of the school itself.’

Parents, governors and villagers came together through newsletters, online chat rooms and ‘design a school’ workshops to discuss the ideas. With the help of Gareth Nash from a regeneration co-op called Co-operative and Mutual Solutions, and a firm of co-operative-friendly solicitors in Manchester, they devised a structure that, they believe, not only fits the legal requirements of the legislation, but meets many of the government’s education priorities too – on citizenship, extended schools, lifelong learning, and parental involvement, not to mention greater school independence.

As far as Rose was concerned, they had come up with a real solution, a structure that could not only save the school, but meet many other government priorities – on rural regeneration, ‘community development’ and ‘participation’. ‘People don’t know how to participate, they don’t know how to get involved, so they are not involved in democratic processes,’ she says. ‘We’ve created something that is a way of applying a lot of current government policy on active citizenship into education and through that into families and communities.’

Not that the education authorities saw it that way. On 8 July, Cumbria’s SOC rejected their plans, claiming the co-operative structure offered nothing new. The campaigners had anticipated that decision – the LEA seemed to be against them from the outset – and immediately filed a hopeful appeal to the DfES adjudicator. The bigger shock came when, just a week before the closure deadline, he turned them down too.

For Mervyn Wilson, this decision was a litmus test of the 2002 Act and the government’s intentions. ‘All we’ve seen from the Act so far is an extension of faith schools,’ he says. ‘Lowick was a test of whether it was genuinely about new models of control and diversity in education.’

Devastated but not defeated, the people of Lowick were left with little choice. Committed to their co-op, they decided to go it alone, and on 1 September the new school opened anyway, as a non-fee paying independent, financed, for the time being at least, by donations and grants.

Lowick New School is no longer CofE controlled, but a voluntary aided school run by the community co-op, what Graham Nash calls ‘a suite of organisations’, including the educational trust, which holds the lease, and an industrial and provident society for community benefit, called Community Learning Lowick, which shares the premises and overheads, and runs ‘community-led activities’.

‘Teachers, parents and community members are all members of the co-op in the same way you can be a member of a workers’ co-op or a housing co-op,’ explains Rose. ‘Governors are elected by the members but all have a say in how the school is run and how the curriculum is taught.’

The mutual ethos runs through the school’s teaching and management, she says. The democratic structure ensures the curriculum can be tailored to the co-op’s priorities. And through its community learning arm, the school will also be a focus for community activities such as adult education, IT training, health and social services advice, perhaps even a community newspaper and local transport.

Critical landmark

With the co-op as its ‘incubator’, to use Rose’s phrase, the school should be able to draw on a wide range of funding, and will also generate income by selling services and products. In fact, local co-op shops are already selling a CD recorded by a former pupil in support of the school’s fight, and the children and staff are collaborating with the nearby John Ruskin centre at Brantwood on community art and education projects. The school will also be able to draw on the range of skills and experiences of the co-operative’s members. John Willis used to run an IT business, for example, and he plans to make the school the centre of a local internet network with educational benefits for pupils and adults alike.

‘We understand that a school and a community are interdependent,’ says Rose. ‘Their development is intertwined. It’s like a tennis ball, you know, it’s made of two tongues of material, but it only bounces when you’ve got them interlocking together.

‘This doesn’t pay lip service to parental involvement. It’s way beyond that; it’s parental engagement. What we’ve created is a community learning structure that’s community-led, not agency-led.’

Lowick’s new model school has already attracted support from the co-operative movement in this country and co-operative schools abroad. It’s being held up as an example for other schools to use and adapt, not merely small rural primaries threatened with extinction, but all schools. ‘The model isn’t going to be unique to Lowick,’ says Stephen Youd-Thomas, head of strategy at Co-operative Action. ‘It’s one that we can pick up and drop almost anywhere else. There’s been lots of interest already from urban schools with active parents who realise their schools are fantastic assets for local communities.

‘People seem to have gained a sense of responsibility; they want to solve things themselves, and the co-operative structure shows them how they can do that by working together.’

Lowick’s staff and members know it’s going to be tough to survive as an independent and intend to re-apply for state funding as soon as they can. ‘They’ve really fought against massive odds,’ says Youd-Thomas. ‘It was a real David and Goliath struggle. But they’ve brought the community together, learned a lot, and that learning won’t be wasted. The community will still have a really effective school and will benefit from the co-operative structure and ethos. But it’s a loss because, as a state school, it would have taken on real beacon status.’

For Mervyn Wilson, Lowick is important because ‘it’s showing there are alternatives to the crude opposition of the state sector and the private sector’. ‘Historically, this will be seen as a critical landmark in the move towards greater diversity in education,’ he says. ‘It is pushing co-operative values into new areas.’


Cooperatives and education

While there’s never been a state-funded co-op school in the UK, there have been schools run on co-operative lines – the trade unions funded a co-op school earlier this century. And there are many successful co-op schools in other countries, especially USA, Sweden, Canada and Spain. ‘Internationally, Lowick is not that radical and new,’ says Mervyn Wilson, whose pamphlet Co-operation and Learning outlined some of the models used elsewhere. ‘But it is part of a growing trend.’

According to Wilson, the ‘huge advantage’ of co-op schools is their ‘active engagement’ of local people, and their ‘very strong democratic ethos’. The co-op structure also means a school’s potential as a community asset can be fully realised for social enterprise and services.

When Lowick’s plans to ‘go co-op’ became public earlier this year, they attracted national media coverage – articles in the Guardian, items on Channel Four News – as well as messages of support from co-ops abroad. The headteacher of one co-op school in Canada told them, ‘We will not let Lowick fail’.

Co-operative education is catching on here too. Rose has spoken at conferences and talked to other interested primaries. One school in Wales is now consulting on whether to become a co-op, while a group of schools in Herefordshire and Worcestershire have set up a co-operative consortium to share services. In the north east there’s already a supply teachers’ co-op and a music teachers’ co-op.

The Co-operative Group, the country’s largest co-operative wholesaler, is sponsoring nine schools applying for special business and enterprise status based on co-operative principles. Five have been successful. And Trade Craft has started a ‘Young Co-operatives’ pilot in secondary schools to encourage fifth and sixth formers to set up co-operative enterprises selling Fair Trade products.

‘Lowick is an indication of a growing tide of interest in mutuals and co-operatives,’ says Stephen Youd-Thomas. ‘The government has created fertile ground and opened opportunities for us to promote co-operation and help communities work together to solve problems.’

Co-operation and Learning by Mervyn Wilson and Mick Taylor is £8.50 from the Centre for British Teachers. Tel. 0118 902 1000.