Co-op education: Why big business needs to be in the classroom

Pippa Wicks, deputy CEO of the Co-op Group, looks at how the organisation is nurturing co-operative skills and ways of thinking

As a business executive it’s tempting to sit back and take the view that it’s the job of the government to educate the future workforce – and the job of business to create employment.

But that’s starting to look very ‘old school’.

Every business is part of society and should have a social and not just commercial purpose to their existence. The Co-op Group has always thought like this. However, in 2018 it’s something every business should be doing.

When it comes to education, the idea that it’s the sole responsibility of the government doesn’t make much sense. You only have to consider how the world of work has been changing in the last 25 years.

We also know that the skills a successful business needs to remain relevant and competitive are changing. At the Co-op Group we want colleagues who can think competitively while also behaving collaboratively. To create the co-op we want it makes sense to encourage and nurture co-operative skills and ways of thinking. We do this through our work with our Co-op Academy schools and through our apprenticeship programme.

In March, we started sponsoring our 12th Co-op Academy School. Through these, we’re touching the lives of over 10,000 children. We encourage our senior managers to become school governors; we create work experience opportunities for the students; and we’re building a route into the Co-op through our apprenticeship programme.

Most importantly, we’re helping the schools to build a culture of co-operative values. In the classroom you see that coming through in how lessons are taught, how pupils relate to each other and how a sense of responsibility and independence is nurtured. When these students join us as colleagues, as they are beginning to do, they arrive with the values we believe in and enhance our workplace from day one.   

Since we relaunched our apprenticeship programme in 2011, we’ve had more than 4,000 colleagues either start their working life with us or begin a new chapter in their careers. This year we hope to take on 1,000 new apprentices. By building up our apprenticeship programme we’re not only teaching the skills we need as a business, we’re also creating a pipeline of co-op minded talent that will operate at every level of the business, from our store managers, to our support functions, and up to executive level.

We’re now also offering our first Co-op degrees, enabling apprentices to achieve their qualification debt-free while also earning a salary. We have 33 apprentices taking our chartered manager degree, which we’re running in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University.

The Co-op Group is getting into the classroom both at school and at work because we believe any business of our size and scale and national standing has a responsibility to contribute to the education of the next generation of employees. It’s not in the interest of any business to exist in a society that’s willing to let a whole generation be left behind, or at the very least be left ill-equipped to enter adult life.

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