There Is An Alternative For Schools

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Students and staff from co-operative schools across the country traded ideas, experiences and knowledge, as well as making new friends and contacts at the second co-operative schools conference. The event, called There Is an Alternative for Schools, took place in Plymouth from the 25-27 July to coincide with Co-operatives 2010.

Small groups of staff and students from seven co-operative schools across the country – Sutherland Business and Enterprise College and Wrockwardine Wood Arts College from Telford, Crosby High School from Liverpool, Upper Shirley High School from Southampton, Lipson Community College from Plymouth, Sir Thomas Boughey High School from Stoke on Trent and St Clere’s School from Thurrock – got to know each other through team-building exercises such as playing human bingo and constructing the tallest newspaper tower, before taking part in workshops and discussions across the weekend about how to embed the co-operative values into their school and develop student and staff voice, from engaging members to incorporating co-operation into the curriculum.

“You are part of something incredibly important and special.” Ed Mayo, Secretary General, Co-operatives UK

Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, opened the schools conference by posing the question ‘What does it mean to be co-operative?’. He defined three basic components: you have to have something in common, have mutual trust and have a shared commitment about taking responsibility.

He drew from his own experiences of school and told students: “In many schools, you do not have a co-operative culture. There’s a lot in our society that encourages you to be competitive and not co-operative. This creates as much pressure on young people as it does on adults. Exam results can be such a focus that we forget about working together and how people get along with each other. You are part of something incredibly important and special.”

Students also had the chance to sit in on sessions from the main conference, hearing from speakers such as Will Hutton, vice chair of the Work Foundation and Phillip Blond, advisor to David Cameron, who discussed the value of the ‘multi stakeholder approach valuing the local over the central’ and the relevance of co-operatives to David Cameron’s ‘big society’. Richard Wilson, co-founder of the Equity Trust, talked about ‘a new idea of citizenship which will take people away from consumerism so we have more time for each other as families, friends and consumers’.

Co-operative trust schools – the family grows

Mervyn Wilson, Principal and Chief Executive of the Co-operative College, reported on the growing number of co-operative schools, with the number due to hit seventy by the end of Co-operatives Fortnight and 120 by the start of the Autumn term. He said: “Three or four years ago, if I’d said at a Co-operative Congress there would be more than seventy co-operative schools by the end of next week, they would have sent for the men in white suits. We are addressing the historic invisibility of co-operatives in mainstream education and we know from history that successful co-operative movements have come out of hugely successful education programmes.”

Established co-operative schools such as Upper Shirley High and Lipson Community College reported on what becoming a co-operative school has meant to them.  Sarah Jones from Lipson Community College said: “The co-operative values, when we looked at them, have always been in our school – just not in such explicit language.”

“The co-operative values, when we looked at them, have always been in our school.” Sarah Jones, Lipson Community College

Building Membership

Both staff and students benefited from sessions on building membership in their schools, with students visiting exhibitors and delegates from co-operative societies to hear first-hand about the benefits of co-operative membership. Students from St Clere’s said: “We found talking to the president of the International Co-operative Alliance, Pauline Green, really interesting as she showed us that if you push, you can achieve great. She told us that co-operation is not just happening here, but all over the world, and there’s an age range from really young to quite old people.”

“The president of the ICA told us that if you push, you can achieve great. Co-operation is not just happening here, but all over the world.” St Clere’s Students

Another added: “Paul Sommerfeld, Chair of Governors at the Co-operative College, answered our questions most directly. We learned that a co-operative is not just a charity – it’s also a business and there needs to be business acumen behind it. “

Other students said: “The lady from Country Markets gave us a proper story and a personal reason about why she joined the co-operative. She also likes helping people and giving guidance.”

Values and Principles

“We’ve drawn bees because they help each other by helping themselves.” Students

Working in groups, students explored how they could practise the co-operative values in their school, from self-help to democracy.

Students explained: “We’ve drawn bees because they help each other by helping themselves.”

“We’ve drawn a dinosaur because everyone has a right to vote, whatever their background. Voting is important to democracy because people have a say in what’s going to happen to them.”

Exploring Resources

“The resources are very exciting – I can’t wait to get back to school to use them!” Teacher and Young Co-operatives Co-ordinator

Staff, parent representatives and teaching assistants had chance to browse resources produced by the Co-operative College, including the recently launched ethical business resource Everybody’s Business and the Recon and Greenfingers packs for Young Co-operatives, and discover the opportunities for embedding them into the school curriculum.

“The Greenfingers resource is impressive as it shows not just the gardening, but also the selling and making money to reinvest, so the project continues.” Parent and teaching assistant, Wrockwardine Wood School

“The resources are very user friendly and I’m sure the children would enjoy using them. They are very cross curricular, including literacy, history, art and science. They would appeal right across the school. They are very exciting – I can’t wait to get back to school to use them!” Joan Deakin, History Teacher, Head of Health and Safety, School Council and Young Co-operatives Co-ordinator

Schools Co-operative Society

The conference also provided an opportunity to meet other members of the co-operative schools network. A brainstorming session threw up ideas for the network, such as a youth parliament, online forums with job adverts and advice for new teachers, trips to co-operative places and the opportunity to get together to purchase resources such as insurance, energy and stationary.

Steve Dempsey, Head Teacher of Crosby High School, said, “It’s very reassuring to know that other people share your values”, whilst Dave Boston, Head Teacher of Sir Thomas Boughey High School, called it “an opportunity to put power in the other direction”.

Mags Bradbury, National Project Manager for the Co-operative Group, offered some words of advice: “The Schools Co-operative Society has a very exciting vision as you as schools actually take ownership of the network.”

She continued: “At the Co-operative Group, we benefit from sharing ideas with other co-operatives. That is the very bottom line of being a co-operative.

“It’s very reassuring to know that other people share your values.” Head Teacher, Crosby High School

Although schools are really different to each other, young people will get to meet all sorts of people from other parts of the country and be part of that community. I would encourage you to go out and visit other schools as it’s really nice to see how other people do things.”

Young Co-operatives

On the final day of the conference, students were challenged to form their own Young Co-operatives in small groups in just an hour – with a twist! Each team was given a Fair Trade banana and told to come up with a business plan – complete with a name, budget, ethical policy and ideas of how to reinvest the profits – based on the fruit.

These are not just the co-operators of the future – they are also the co-operators of today.” Mervyn Wilson, Principal and Chief Executive, the Co-operative College

The new Young Co-operatives came up with varied and imaginative ideas, from co-operatives selling banana sculptures to an artists’ co-operative using bananas to print onto different surfaces such as wallpaper and pencil cases, with products to suit every wallet, which would be sold at community events.

Bio nana’s business involved creating banana-based biofuel using waste fruit from supermarkets, with the fruit fermented into alcohol, and recycling the banana skins. All profits would be put back into Fair Trade companies.

The shoe shine co-operative Shine o Rama even began trading at the conference, with its first customers paying 20p each to have their shoes shined with a banana skin. Customers were also encouraged to eat the bananas whilst their shoes were being shined, to promote healthy eating.

The Young Co-operatives presented their ideas at the Annual Review of the Co-operative College in front of delegates and Co-operative College staff, including Principal and Chief Executive Mervyn Wilson, who said: “These are not just the co-operators of the future – they are also the co-operators of today.”

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