Co-operation in South Korea: the rise of co-op learning in schools

Julie Thorpe is School Programmes Manager at the Co-operative College. In July she spoke at the World Human Rights Cities Forum, held in Gwangju, South Korea. On 18 May 1980, an uprising took...

Julie Thorpe is School Programmes Manager at the Co-operative College. In July she spoke at the World Human Rights Cities Forum, held in Gwangju, South Korea.

On 18 May 1980, an uprising took place in the South Korean city of Gwangju in protest against the military regime which had taken power the previous year, ousting the authoritarian ruler President Park Chung-hee. Over 600 people are estimated to have died, and hundreds were arrested over two weeks of street battles. These events triggered a nationwide struggle, ending with the first democratic presidential election seven years later.

It is not surprising, then, that Gwangju regards itself as the birthplace of democracy in South Korea. The story of its martyrdom is captured in a Unesco Memory of the World archive and a memorial cemetery where the fallen were later reburied.

But Gwangju didn’t stop there. Conscious of their heritage, the city’s leaders have gone on to play a key role in the global World Human Rights Cities movement. The concept of the Human Rights City is a practical one connecting international legal frameworks with local government services and policies. A Human Rights City is marked by its commitment to improve its resident’s quality of life while simultaneously fostering attitudes of shared responsibility and mutual respect. In July, Gwangju hosted its sixth WHRC Forum.

“By 2030, today’s roughly 50% urban population will climb to nearly 60%, or 4.9 billion people,” said Sanghera Jyoti, of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, at the Forum’s opening round table.

“Inadequate regulations, excessive privatisation, and commoditisation of housing, water or land has already led millions of urban inhabitants today to live in unaffordable and inadequate housing conditions, and exacerbated forced evictions, displacement and growing inequalities,” she added.

Sanghera Jyoti speaking at the 2016 WHRC Forum
Sanghera Jyoti speaking at the 2016 WHRC Forum

“Housing, water, education, health and fair administration of justice are not mere commodities. They are rights to which all are entitled, without discrimination – under international human rights law.”

This year, education was on the Forum’s agenda. South Korea’s school system is regarded as highly successful – its students gain world-beating grades. But the rigorous discipline and long hours along with traditional, didactic teaching methods put enormous pressure on South Korean young people.

A number of ‘Innovation Schools’ have now been designated where students are consulted on matters such as uniform and school hours and are being given, for the first time, a voice in the way their schools are run.

Since I last visited South Korea three years ago and introduced the concept of the co-operative school that has developed here in the UK, various aspects of our model have started to be implemented, especially by the Innovation Schools.

Experiments in increased autonomy for schools, the introduction of aspects of democratic governance, and co-operative learning methodologies in the classroom are growing.

School co-operatives where students have set up their own enterprises within the school are a particular feature of this new approach. Twelve schools in Seoul now have well-established student co-operative enterprises and they are springing up in other districts too.

An interesting feature of the South Korean school co-operative model is the involvement of parents. Given the demands of an already heavy curriculum load there was little capacity amongst teachers to support the establishment of these projects. Instead, practical assistance has come from parents – mainly mothers – who have come into the school to help out.

A parent, Eun Jin Park, told me she had previously taken little interest in the way her children’s school was run – a matter she clearly took for granted as being the sphere of the state authorities. But the

A student co-operative runs a snack bar at one of South Korea's Innovation Schools
A student co-operative runs a snack bar at one of South Korea’s Innovation Schools

children attend from 8am and are often still at school until 10pm. They rely on convenience stores to buy food during the day and a few years ago the school had brought in a commercial company to run a kiosk in the school. Parents were appalled by the quality of the food their children were snacking on and eventually campaigned to kick the concession out.

They joined together with the students to support them in setting up their own snack bar, run as a student co-operative, to sell healthy and reasonably priced food – rather a familiar story!

With change beginning in the Korean school system, it is clear that school co-operatives offer a practical, hands-on approach which can complement the formal curriculum. The Co-operative College is looking forward to arranging ‘twinnings’ between the Korean students and their counterparts here in the UK.

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