The Co-op has announced that it will be sponsoring a network of secondary schools under the UK Labour Party’s specialist schools policy. The mutual society, which owns businesses including 1,800 supermarkets and the Co-operative Bank, is contributing £350,000 to support schools bidding to become specialist business and enterprise colleges. The Co-op is hoping to help young people understand the benefits of conducting business in a trustworthy, democratic, and accountable way.
The specialist schools programme is a significant education policy from the government, however, it is not without controversy. Some critics argue that these schools have received more taxpayer money than other schools, earning them the nickname "bog-standard" comprehensives. Nonetheless, becoming a specialist school comes with many advantages; successful schools receive £100,000 in funding and an additional £126 per extra student for the next four years.
The Co-op’s sponsorship will make it easier for schools to achieve specialised status, which could be costly for schools in poorer areas. Labour inherited the policy from the Tories, and Labour’s then-official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, announced that the time had come for "bog-standard" comprehensives to be replaced.
Despite some criticism, Education Secretary Charles Clarke has lifted the cap on specialist schools, believing they improve student results faster than ordinary schools, a claim contested by the Commons education select committee. The Co-op group is confident that by supporting schools that specialise in business and enterprise, they will be able to promote the co-operative way of doing business.
Co-op Chairman Keith Darwin explained, "Young people will benefit from understanding the advantages of doing business in a democratic, honest, and responsible way." The move has been praised by Elizabeth Reid, Chief Executive of the Specialist Schools Trust. She referred to the partnership as "groundbreaking" and described it as the first time a major mutual society has supported the program of specialist schools. Education Secretary Clarke has expressed his delight at the Co-op’s decision to sponsor the specialist schools program.