Why education is so important for co-operatives

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.

This is the fifth co-operative principle, as published by the International Co-operative Alliance. It is not surprising that education was on the original list of seven Rochdale principles and has remained so following the various ICA-led revisions of these principles.

Early co-operators lived in societies where education was reserved for the privileged, but they recognised then, as today, that education was fundamental to transforming their lives – a key to enlightenment and social progress. And they recognised their responsibility to help in the education of their co-operative members and their families by allocating part of their organisation’s trading surplus to education.

The ingredient that transformed half a century’s experimentation with co-operation into a successful model subsequently replicated throughout the world was a willingness to share experience and learn from successes, failures, and setbacks.

Without such sharing of ideas and experience, it is unlikely today’s diverse co-operative sector would have emerged. Co-operative education played a central role in the growth of the Raffhaisen, Mondragon, and Antigonish movements. Education was and remains the lifeblood of all co-operatives. It is a driver of co-operative development, and is important across all areas of co-operation.

Education for members

Member education needs to be an important focus for co-operatives, and means more than simply informing co-operative members about the business and encouraging trading loyalty – although it must do those things as well. But it must first provide avenues for members to learn about co-operative identity and values, and the global co-operative family of which their co-op is part.

Member education should help further understanding of the rights and responsibilities of membership, including their need to exercise their democratic rights. Member education can help secure an active and informed membership and ensure that elected representatives and leaders are ones who share their vision and aspirations for the success of their co-operative, and have the necessary skills to carry out their responsibilities.

Elected representatives

Co-operative education has always been inextricably linked with building good governance.

Good governance in co-operatives is dependent on an active and well informed membership and the quality of those elected to serve on the various committees and bodies that comprise the democratic structure. In many parts of the world, as co-operatives have grown larger, the number of elected posts has reduced and more complex structures have developed.

At every level, from the smallest co-operative to the largest, success or failure largely rests with the decisions made by elected representatives. So, it is critical that elected representatives are equipped with the skills, knowledge and understanding to enable them to make decisions in the long term interests of the co-operative and its members.

The process of election is no guarantee of competence. Training and development support, rooted in co-operative values, can help elected members develop skills to enable them to provide constructive challenges to executives and should be a core part of co-operative education programmes.

Managers and staff

Co-operative education and training programmes should provide opportunities to enable managers and employees in co-operative organisations to understand the distinct nature of the organisation and the needs of their members.

This is particularly important for those coming to the co-operative sector from more traditional forms of business – where the needs of shareholders may be very different to those of a co-operative member.

With the impact of globalisation, we are now seeing increasing numbers of managers and employees move from the private and public sectors to co-operatives, so managers and employees in co-operatives should receive induction training that covers the specific nature of co-operatives and their values.

Wider public

Shortly after 2000, Ivano Barbarini, then president of the International Co-operative Alliance, warned how globalisation was leading to the invisibility of co-operatives. This ‘invisibility’ has been tracked by academics who reported on the disappearance of co-operatives from economic textbooks in the last half century.

Since the adoption of the Statement on Co-operative Identity in 1995, efforts by co-operators have significantly influenced the wider policy agenda. The adoption of ILO Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Co-operatives provided opportunities not only to revise co-operative law, but to raise awareness of cooperatives and their distinct nature within the ILO tripartite structures on every continent.

If the opportunities of the co-operative development decade are to be realised, co-operative education needs to build on this progress, transforming research into effective learning programmes and providing advice to policy makers. Co-operative education needs to stimulate debate to help generate opportunities for further co-operative development.


As democratic organisations, co-operatives need to be able to inspire new generations and be prepared to adapt to meet their needs in order to survive. Co-operative movements in many parts of the world have helped develop education for and about co-operatives through the formal education system.

Co-operative nursery schools and kindergartens are well established in some countries, with strong networks in Sweden, Spain and Canada. In the UK, Midcounties consumer co-operative has developed a network of 50 nurseries as one of its services for members.

Other co-operative movements, such as the Singapore National Co-operative Federation, have developed specific resources to teach co-operative values in early years education.

A major strand in co-operative education is emerging through the growth of co-operative schools. In Spain and Portugal these are well established, with a range of models engaging parents and local communities, from from teacher-led worker co-operatives to multi-stakeholder models. In Sweden, community-based schools have emerged in response to legislative changes, particularly in rural areas. Nearly 700 state schools in England have converted to multi-stakeholder co-operatives with parents, staff, learners, and the local community as members.

Raising awareness often leads to co-operative innovation and development. Perhaps the greatest potential now for co-operative education lies with youth and student co-operatives. In parts of Africa, such as Uganda and Lesotho, youth and student co-ops go beyond providing a learning experience about co-operation to the development of the skills necessary for job creation and income generation.


An important theme running through co-operative education programmes is the effective use of co-operative heritage to inform and inspire the co-operators of today and tomorrow. The stories of how co-operators have previously faced up to serious challenges and overcome them are one of the greatest educational resources available.

It places a responsibility on all co-operatives – a responsibility to cherish and safeguard their heritage and to use it effectively in their learning programmes. The Co-op Stories website is an example of how contemporary stories can be made easily available. Similarly, technology is now enabling heritage items to become more readily accessible – the pioneering work of the Co-operative Heritage Trust in the UK in safeguarding co-operative heritage is an exemple of good practice that could easily be replicated and become a cornerstone of co-operative education.

• The International Co-operative Alliance’s principles committee is drafting guidance notes for three of the seven co-operative principles, with the other four to be looked at next year. To comment on principle five, as well as the principles of Member Economic Participation and Concern for the Community, visit the ICA website. All comments should be emailed to [email protected] by 15 May.