At the dawn of the co-op movement in the 19th century, education played a massive role in advancing the cause of collective ideas. The Rochdale Pioneers’ Toad Lane HQ also served as a school at a time when very few working people had access to a decent education, helping many gain the qualifications they needed for a better life. The Co-operative College, which celebrated its centenary in 2019, has delivered co-operative education for many thousands of students and provides global expertise.
The potential is undoubtedly there to grow the sector via the classroom. There are 27 Co-op Academies in the Midlands and North of England. The Co-operative Schools Network has 200 member schools. However, almost 200 years on from the founding of the Rochdale Pioneers, the UK co-operative sector currently accounts for just 1% of business turnover – around half achieved by the Co-operative Group and John Lewis Partnership.
The Fifth Cooperative Principle emphasises the need for co-operative education and training, not only to ensure the success of existing co-operatives, but also for future leaders of co-operative businesses. So what can be done?
In 2018, the Co-op Party commissioned Co-ops Unleashed, a New Economics Foundation report calling for a doubling of the sector by 2030. The report cited a variety of roadblocks to progress, including absence of legislation to help set up co-operatives, as well as lack of advice and incentive. Three years on, in a post-pandemic economy, major challenges remain.
Joe Fortune, Co-op Party general secretary, says: “The range of issues we flagged a few years ago included unhelpful legislation and ability to raise finance. Also, lack of awareness about co-op education is a real inhibitor to growth. In professional service areas – whether it is lawyers, business mentors or consultants – none go through training with any real idea of what it means to develop co-operatives. The people they go to for advice and help are also people who have probably never come across them.
“We tried very hard to make the case with education ministers for co-op studies to be within the curriculum but there was no appetite for it. It is a fundamental problem.”
As lockdown restrictions ease, the Co-op Party will be aiming to build on the positives of its Co-ops Unleashed initiative.
Mr Fortune said: “Post-pandemic there are 50,000 high street businesses under threat, there will be a demand for more diverse business models and more community-based economic development. We need to give people the tools to do things for themselves, making it easier for co-ops to be set up, stimulate demand and have the ability to sit up and make our case.”
Russell Gill, chair of the Co-op Academies Trust, acknowledges there is still progress to be made. “There is a seamless connection linking our heritage through the broader community and social activities represented within the culture of the schools. We do not have to struggle to talk about equity and solidarity – and there is no challenge about getting the co-op ethos embedded in all our academies.
“Colleagues who work for the Co-op Group see us as a great way of reaching into community leadership within the academies so our local governing bodies have co-op representatives with a minimum of four in secondary schools and two in primary schools.”
At the Co-op Connell College in inner city Manchester, 20 students have just completed the Young Business Leaders programme, spending one day a week working for the Co-op Group across a range of disciplines including customer service, finance and HR. The next cohort starts in November.
Mr Gill said: “Does that teach them the nuts and bolts of forming a co-op? No, but it shows the difference of working for a co-op and the importance of our values and ethics. We should not be disheartened.
“One of the key priorities for young people is to do a better job when it comes to career education and some of the better creative thinking around that has come as a result of the pandemic.
“Our Co-op Academy Virtual Work Experience delivered 80 opportunities over the past few weeks and provides a real opportunity for other co-ops and enterprises. I can see us building on that.“
Professor Rory Ridley Duff, reader in co-operative and social enterprise at Sheffield Hallam University, serves on the board of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies. “One of the problems is the UK co-op movement is still too narrowly associated with the retail sector and that reduces interest for education purposes,” he says.
“In places like Italy and Spain, it is embedded in sectors like manufacturing and engineering. In north-west Spain over 600 schools are participating in a project called NEMESIS, being part of a co-op and learning about social innovation.
“In parts of South America over half of the population can tell you what a co-op is; here it’s more like 5%. There is also no requirement to include co-op studies in our curriculum but there are opportunities to do so. I have taken advantage of the fact our business school is signed up to the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education and including co-ops in various courses is a way of demonstrating that.”
He adds: “The last Labour manifesto in 2019 made a commitment to doubling the size of the co-op economy, so we need that to continue. We also need more grassroots development, our trade unions could learn from union co-op experiments in North America. Overall I am optimistic at the tenacity and determination of some grassroots networks more than government input. There are also more entrepreneurial environments that are sympathetic to co-ops now. That encourages me.”