Shared values unite a co-operative school with Africa

Perhaps it is only in the Co-operative Movement that an alliance of shared values could be formed between former members of the armed wing of the African National...

But it is an alliance that is bringing hope and much-needed income to people in Southern Africa and also offering great encouragement and hope for the long-term success of the Movement.

When around 30 former combatants of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the military wing of the ANC) and the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (the military wing of the Pan African Congress) decided to turn their focus to business creation they formed a workers’ co-operative called Tshepanang.

In 2007 the men were largely demoralised, some 14 years after demobilisation, with little idea of how to adapt to their new situation. A number of business ideas were explored, before a beading and jewellery business was decided upon —  not an obvious choice perhaps, given the men’s background, their far from dainty hands and their largely poor eyesight.

The men undertook formal business training and learned how to make the jewellery, including necklaces, bracelets and earrings. 

Having had some success in selling their products locally, a meeting with Co-operative College Principal Mervyn Wilson opened up the international market and the Staffordshire link. 

The College facilitated the link between Tshepanang and Sir Thomas Boughey Co-operative Business College, one of the first co-operative business colleges in the country.

The headteacher at Sir Thomas Boughey, Dave Boston, says: “Our pupils visited Lesotho in December 2008 and, after initial contacts were made, we sold the jewellery throughout 2009. 

“The pupils created their own website from which to sell it and they also run stalls at different locations and events. 

“At our 2008 meeting we’d promised to return some of the profits to the men and in December 2009 I was able to return with another group of pupils to hand over $500 to the group. They were both pleased and surprised, saying that “people rarely keep their promises to us”. 

“While the sum of money is relatively small in our terms, it will be vital to them and their growing business.

Mr Boston, a lifelong co-operator, is impressed by the co-operative attitude of Tshepanang: “They are really into the co-operative values. Through self-help they want to improve their communities and they are using the workers’ co-operative business model to do that.”

It is the same business model being employed by the pupils at Sir Thomas Boughey — a model that is now embedded within the school.

“All our enterprise groups run using Co-op values to do their work and the group Young Co-operators at STB is one of them,” Mr Boston explains. “Co-operative values are the core of all aspects of our school life.

As well as selling Tshepanang’s jewellery, the Young Co-operators at Sir Thomas Boughey (made up of pupils aged 13-14) also sell calendars from Lesotho.

“I do think it is vital for our pupils to see how co-operation in action can bring real change to peoples’ lives,” says Mr Boston. “Our whole approach of putting co-operation into the curriculum has been to show how relevant co-operative ideas are to today’s world. Using them as a way of developing values in young people helps to develop good citizens for the future.”

It is a view shared by OFSTED. When inspected within the past two months, the school was officially rated “outstanding” and inspectors commented: “The school’s specialism of business and the Co-operative Movement’s support chime with its ethos of equality, fairness and sustainability, and permeate all that it does.”

The inspectors added: “The school provides an outstanding curriculum, by putting co-operation into the curriculum. The school’s specialism impacts both within and beyond specialist subjects.” 

They went on: “Students participate in a wide range of young enterprise activities as true workers’ co-operatives, thereby embedding fairtrade practices and sustainability and the development of effective business skills.”

In their message to pupils, the inspectors concluded: “The development of the school as a business and enterprise college with the Co-operative Movement has enriched your education and provided you with some world-class experiences.”

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