Reflections on #CoopEdu

Exciting and inspiring stuff in Manchester last Thursday at the Co-operative Education Against the Crises conference, which was (very well) organised by James Duggan from the Education and Social Research Institute @ Man Met Uni, and by the Co-operative College.

The day started with keynotes from Michael Apple, University of Wisconsin-Madison on Interrupting The Right: A Strategy For Change and by Mervyn Wilson, principle of the Co-operative College, on the latest developments in co-operative school models in the UK – putting these into historical context of both the 150 year old global co-op movement and marketising education reforms by recent successive governments.

Rather than attempt a summary of these two rich and thought provoking talks (they were filmed and are available here: I’ll use this post to report and give some first reflections on the themes that got me particularly fired up in the break out groups and open discussion sessions that I took part in.

will though start by mentioning the nice visual metaphor that Mike Apple conjured up in his opening address, to account for “why the Right are winning the argument”. To paraphrase…

A school (read: education’s role in society) is on fire. The teachers and students (read: anyone with an interest in education’s role in society) are peering out of the windows of the burning building, looking for an escape. On the one side, they see Michael Gove (read: the Right/ neoliberalism/ marketisation). He’s holding a net, shouting “JUMP! JUMP!” On the other side they see Michael Apple (read: the Left/ critics of the reforms), who’s also wildly urging them to take the plunge. Except he’s not holding any sort of net. “WHERE’S THE NET?!” shout those trapped in the building. “WE’LL NEGOTIATE IT ON THE WAY DOWN!”, yells back Apple.

I recount this not because the analysis implicit in it of the current relationships between ideology, education policy, society and politics went unchallenged during the day (it didn’t – there were critical voices proposing both more nuanced and radically different takes). But rather because it seemed to sum up the energy and mood that the event was unified by: a recognition that critique alone is not enough, and the urgent need for plans of action – in particular ones that involve resistance embodied in the form of working alternatives. An answer to the question “but what do I do on Monday?” Or, as Richard Hall tweeted, the big “WHAT. IS. TO. BE. DONE?”

Breakout sessions were organised around sharing the learning to be taken from working examples of current co-operative educational models in the UK (of which there are a healthy and growing number). They also coalesced groups of people interested in and/or working in similar fields. The two I attended functioned much more like working groups than conference panel sessions.

The first was on co-operative youth services and in particular “mutuals” (model: Young Lambeth). Kevin Ford of FPM led us through a very pragmatic account of the model and particular examples of it, which are one increasingly popular response to the funding crisis in youth services in cash strapped local authorities around the country. He noted – amongst other things – the model was not without huge challenges and needed strong buy-in from staff. He explained that all youth service mutuals are not created equal, in that the degree of control over budgets by young members and staff can vary significantly, and in some instances be rather loosely defined. He also pointed out – which I found worthy of note – that the model necessitates creating a profit to be reinvested in services, it cannot work on a break-even basis; and this also fits with the history of co-ops, which were formed in a market place.

Discussion in this session focused on setting an agenda for issues we’d like to take forward, many of which were of keen interest to me and drew threads between my own research interests and previous work. These included:

  • The governance structure of youth mutuals: do they reproduce neoliberal subjects even if the intention is the opposite? Reflections on the New Labour years, for instance, and critiques of participatory budgeting.
    • The language of self-help and self-responsibility
    • Participatory democracy vs representative democracy: how is a mutual one or the other?
  • The use of the word “voice” in public services – a consumer notion, the equivalent of “choice” – but very different to the idea of voice in co-operative structures
  • Sharing of the “joyful” experience of setting up and working in a youth workers co-op in Hackney
  • My own interest in what role universities and academic researchers might play in co-operating with and helping bolster a fast-changing youth sector under attack.

Next, I attended the breakout where Mike Neary and colleagues from The Social Science Centre, Lincoln outlined this burgeoning co-operative alternative to the neoliberal university, which has attracted a lot of attention and been on many people’s radars. A great talk, where he outlined the dimensions of the project – small scale, experimental, but with much larger ambition in terms of starting a movement – and put it into historical context of:

  • The philosophies of “communism” of the early co-op movement and Rochdale Pioneers
  • Marx’s argument that co-ops are a tool for transcendence rather than transcendence themselves, and need to be allied to broader social movements
  • The birth of the modern university in Berlin as a radical social project, and reaction against the scholastic dogmatism of the medieval university

He then noted that talks are on-going with the Co-operative in Manchester about the possibilities of developing a much larger scale national or transnational co-operative HEI, and briefly explored what this might look like. Huge enthusiasm for this project in the discussion groups, and there’s a mailing list you can join by emailing jwinn [at]

The afternoon was broken into open space, where participants proposed topics for further discussion then formed groups to talk about them, and closed with a facilitated discussion session to shape the agenda for action. Too much was noteworthy in all this to do justice to it all, but a few points that caught my attention were:

  • In the group proposed by Graeme Tiffany of Federation for Detached Youth Work/ IoE/ independent on ‘Civil Society’ and its relationship to education, we had a rich discussion on the sources of optimism and action encompassed in this dynamic – local, national, international – concept. This seemed to us especially useful in a context where charities and “NGOs” are increasingly being brought into the work of the state through for instance commissioned service delivery, and ‘community’ is a concept much abused and polluted by neoliberal discourses. Civil society seems to offer both a potential reminder of the essential nature of the social, reactivating and recapturing the most important notions in ‘community’, and also to reclaim the ‘non’ in NGO. I found this an immediately useful handle for thinking about the types of relationships that I know – for instance – Sarah Eagle was so successfully using the University as a space for forging with her Play, Risk, and the City event the other week.
  • Students from Reddish Vale Technology College giving a stirring account of their own takes on how and why students should have a ‘voice’ in their own education. One that stuck for me was being given access to knowledge about both pedagogic techniques and their own learning styles and preferences, at a young age, before asking them how they want to change their schools. Highly relevant not only to ‘formal’ education I think, and resonates for me around my own interest in youth participation, also setting some wheels spinning in terms of our recent reading group discussions on ‘powerful knowledge’
  • A point about new movements in co-operative academies – and how they should be distinctive from other schools in their values – in the context of the comprehensivisation of secondary schools in the 1960s. Speaker reminded us that real negotiations were being made, for eg over curricula, uniforms, relationships of teachers to pupils, terms of address etc and this led to something radically and powerfully different. Certainly made me think about my own secondary education in a different light!

All in all: a fantastic day. Many thanks to the organisers and looking forward to the next steps and next events in the series.

This was originally posted on the  Learning Lives blog based at Bristol University and Cooperative Education Against the Crises webpage.
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