Back to school: How education can help the co-op movement grow

We visit the Co-op Academy in Leeds to ask the next generation of potential co-operators what they think about the movement

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-operative. They inform the general public, particularly young people and opinion leaders, about the nature and benefits of co-operation.

~ The fifth co-operative principle, as published by the International Co-operative Alliance

The co-op sector can only grow if people know about the business model in the first place. And at a time when syllabuses of business courses rarely mention co-ops, a connection with education institutions – in particular schools – is more important than ever.

These connections come in different shapes and sizes, tailored to suit the capacity of the co-op and the needs of the school.

Sometimes it takes the form of financial support. Heart of England Co-op recently awarded SS Peter & Paul Catholic Primary School £1,000 towards the purchase of 30 musical instruments, while Tamworth Co-op has helped a local pre-school purchase pots and pans for a new outdoor mud kitchen, as well as small log chairs and dressing-up clothes. And Midcounties has been working with schools to help save energy through its Green Pioneers programme.

Others make this connection through meaningful work experience placements; Central England, for example, created a pioneering initiative giving opportunities to students with special educational needs (the SENce to Aspire programme), while Unicorn Grocery Worker Co-operative in South Manchester hosts school visits and provides placements.

Lincolnshire Co-op is doing interesting work with schools as well, running free education sessions on Fairtrade, employability skills and alcohol awareness, among others, tailored to different key stages.

The Co-op Academies Trust, a charity controlled by trustees appointed by the Co-op Group, operates 12 academies across Greater Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent and West Yorkshire, with more to come. The Trust’s aim is that “children and young people and those that work for the Trust understand the benefits of co-operation and how a co-operative approach can make life fairer for all in the modern world, by applying co-operative and ethical values”.

Recently, Co-op News visited students at the Co-op Academy in Leeds, where co-ops – and their history – are covered in PSHCE (Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education) lessons.

“The people starting co-ops wanted to change the way businesses and supermarkets worked as they didn’t think the current system was fair,” said Salah Doudai, a year 10 pupil. “Co-ops are about communities coming together for a particular reason, to solve a problem,” adds year 8 student Lamek Abraha.

But these pupils don’t think that co-ops do enough to tell people what they are and what they do. “Some people don’t know what you’re on about if you say ‘co-op’ to them, so I think people need to learn about co-ops more,” says Fayann Whitney from year 7. They think that worker co-ops are a good thing, too. “It’s important that everyone is treated equally, in the workplace, and everyone gets paid what they deserve,” says Salah.

One problem, they all agree, is that TV ads for Co-op Food are the only time they hear about co-ops outside school. “The adverts don’t talk about all the other parts of what a co-op is and does,” says Lamek – and young people “don’t really watch TV any more anyway.”

“Since we have mobile phones, social media, streaming apps, things like that, the adverts don’t mean anything to us,” says Salah. These students use YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat, where ads are tailored to the content they watch – and are largely skippable.

Another problem is that the adverts aren’t relevant to them, says Syeda Sumayya Ali, from year 8. “We’re more interested in things like social media and technology. A food advert doesn’t mean anything to us. Maybe everyone needs an induction day, like you have before high school – an induction to co-ops to learn about the different types while finding it fun. If people are interested about it, then they would spread it on.”

The students also think more should be taught about co-ops in schools. “If you know about co-ops, then when you grow up and know what job you want to do, you can set up your own co-op rather than just looking for something,” says Fayann.

Salah adds: “If people get taught about the co-op values and what they do behind the scenes, people would be more inclined to get involved. Today a lot of people are all for values like equality and diversity. At the moment though, too many people aren’t really aware of what co-ops are doing – they think it’s just another food store.”