Exploring co-operative models in education

Opinions vary when it comes to the role of competition in education. At a conference in Manchester at the end of the last year, education experts, along with...

Opinions vary when it comes to the role of competition in education. At a conference in Manchester at the end of the last year, education experts, along with co-operative practitioners, examined how co-operative values and principles can be applied to education as an alternative to the competition-driven model. The 107 participants from across 10 countries explored the role of education in forming members, employees and managers of co-operatives, as well as how the education system could be transformed by co-operation.

Co-operation began with a vision of a better, more just form of society, education was an intrinsic part of this, forming the backbone of the fifth co-operative principle: Education, training and information.

“Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives,” reads the International Co-operative Alliance‘s definition of the principle. “They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.”

Building this vision for a better world required people with different attitudes, explained Mervyn Wilson, principal of the Co-operative College, giving conference delegates examples from the movement’s history that could be used to inspire the next generation of co-operators.

“Owenites translated that vision into a practical model,” said Mr Wilson, adding that the Rochdale Pioneers were also trying to inspire better people, alongside individual co-operatives.

When the Rochdale Pioneers’ co-operative was set up in 1844, half of the members were under 30, and education and learning was a fundamental part of the process. “The idea of building a better society was always at the heart of co-ops,” Mr Wilson said. “Co-operative education needs to be the glue that cements the idea and the vision of co-operation with the objectives.”

He thinks the current rapidly changing landscape has created huge new spaces and opportunities for co-operative development.

Chairing the conference, Co-operatives UK secretary general, Ed Mayo, agreed, describing co-op education as “an exciting mix between theory and practice”. But, he said, a better understanding of the model is needed.

The co-operative model in education has experienced a boost in recent years. There are now more than 800 co-operative trust schools, up from just 36 in 2009, while the number of co-operative academy schools has also increased to 41.

In a workshop at the conference, Anna Davis of the Young Foundation talked about building the co-operative education sector. She was joined by Johanna Dennis of Manchester Metropolitan University, who is researching the co-operative academy schools model.

Ms Davis presented a case study of co-operative trust schools, for which she conducted interviews with different head teachers and others involved in the trust schools.

Developed by the Co-operative College jointly with the Co-operative Group and schools, the co-op trust model enables schools to embed co-operative values into the long-term ethos of the school – and gives parents, learners, staff and community organisations the chance to be directly involved in the trust. They elect stakeholders to represent them on a forum which holds the trust to account, helps shape its policies and elects some trustees.

Ms Davis’ research revealed four main reasons for the rapid growth of co-operative trust schools. One key driver is the co-operative model’s appeal. People interviewed associated the co-operative trust schools model with co-operative values – values they, as educational practitioners, would like to see more of.

Pupil involvement was another particularly attractive feature, as were the opportunities for partnership and collaboration on a different philosophy for how schools can improve. Teachers have helped promote the model via word of mouth, while the College’s support has helped facilitate the model.

Another enabler was the context of inevitable and rapid change, with local authorities encouraging schools to think of the situation as a fertile opportunity where people are more open to discussions about innovative structure.

Commenting on the findings of the study, Mervyn Wilson said the number of co-operative schools could increase even more if they benefited from a level playing field. While shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt suggested increasing the number of co-operative schools to 3,000 at the Labour Party conference, Mr Wilson thinks they could reach 5,000 if given the appropriate support.

Similar research by Joanna Dennis is exploring the motivations of school leaders and the appetite of stakeholders when they convert to a co-operative academy.

Academies are independent state schools which have contractual funding agreements with central government, renewed every seven years. While they enjoy an increased autonomy in terms of pay and conditions, curriculum, admissions, organising the school day and finance, they are directly and indirectly accountable through a process of regulation.

They have a governance structure that ensures the direct engagement of stakeholders through membership and forum. But according to Ms Dennis, there are certain tensions and contradictions within the model, with schools choosing this as the “least worst option for them”. The Anti Academies Alliance has described it as “privatisation by the nice guys”.

The research is particularly important because it will emphasise how co-operative academies are different from corporate academies – but, insists Ms Dennis, “the academy school is here to stay”.

Beaufort co-operative academy students and building 2013
‘The co-operative academy is here to stay,’ says Joanna Dennis

Talking about the two co-operative models in education, trust schools and academies, Mr Wilson said that both gave a role for all employees, teaching or non-teaching staff, to engage. He argued that measures of success had to be the extent to which staff are engaged.

President of the International Co-operative Alliance, Dame Pauline Green, was another keynote speaker at the conference. The fifth co-operative principle is “often the least fulfilled by co-ops”, she said.

There is a need to continue to educate the wider public about the distinct nature of co-operatives as an enterprise model, added Dame Pauline. Having people from co-op education who understand co-operation can help generate some corporate understanding of the movement; in turn, this can help co-ops gain the recognition they deserve, and show that they are successful even as big businesses.

The debate on co-operative education isn’t restricted to the classroom. Also speaking at the conference was young co-operator Saskia Neibig, a member of Woodcraft Folk, a movement for children and young people.

The organisation promotes equality and co-operation and runs various activities aimed at developing children’s self-confidence and building their awareness of society around them. Ms Neibig thinks that, while there is value in competitiveness, education is suffering from focusing on competitiveness as the only driver.

“We prioritise [competitiveness] to an unreasonable extent in our day-to-day life,” she said, highlighting how, in a school environment,  “everyone constantly has to prove that they are the best that there is”.

According to Ms Neibig, the co-operative movement should be instrumental in countering this. She started taking part in Woodcraft Folk activities at the age of five, learning different skills that were about co-operation and responding to other people’s needs.

Talking about her experience, she said: “The ultimate role is for everyone to feel valued. The aim is for everyone to succeed collectively, or we’re not succeeding at all.”

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