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Schooling for sustainability

Sensemaking / Schooling for sustainability

Co-operative schools are giving young people and their communities something to value, says Ruth Rosselson

07 Mar 2012

Co-operative schools are giving young people and their communities something to value, says Ruth Rosselson

As rioting pupils and poor results dominate the headlines, it’s clear that young people need to be at the heart of any efforts to build their future. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has called for civil society to reach out to “those who think they have nothing to lose”. What better way than to give high-school students a stake in their school, encouraging them to take responsibility for the way it runs and the quality of education it offers?

That is just what Reddish Vale Technology College (RVTC) did in 2008, kicking off a wave of transitions towards co-operative models among educational institutes. This large school on the outskirts of Birmingham now offers membership to students, teachers, parents, carers, and interested members of the local community, alongside voluntary, public and commercial partners.

For Jordan, a 16-year-old at RVTC, this move “changed everything”: “Students gained a powerful voice that became just as equally heard as [that of] the teachers. RVTC became ‘our’ school.”

There are now more than 200 educational institutions in the UK which run as co-operative trusts. They still function as ‘normal schools’, adhering to the national curriculum and any government targets – but these basics aside, the scope for a school to change is as great as its members’ ambition. Co-operative schools in the UK are unique in inviting students and the wider community to become members, according to Julie Thorpe, Head of School and Youth Programmes at The Co-operative College, an education charity which advises transitioning schools on legal structures and practicalities. Some schools in Sweden and Spain also run on a co-operative basis, but limit their membership to the teachers and staff. Thorpe observes that, while it might take some teachers and carers a while to grasp what difference it will make in practice, the “children tend to ‘get it’ pretty quickly”.

But it’s not an easy change to make, admits Mags Bradbury, National Projects Manager for The Co-operative. Transitioning schools are a fundamental part of The Co-operative’s goal to engage the next generation, and it supports them by volunteering time and expertise in areas such as financial literacy. The Co-operative is also sponsoring ten Business & Enterprise Colleges and three academies. One great mechanism to help existing and transitioning schools share resources, ideas and best practice is The Schools Co-operative Society, a national network set up by The Co-operative College.

“We know first-hand that membership [of a co-operative school] takes time to build, and it is hard work”, says Bradbury. But, she adds, the new structure doesn’t just make a difference to governance: it has a real impact on the institution’s values and the education it offers, too.

“Lots of schools have mottos, but the [co-operative] values and principles are more than that.” Take The Co-operative Academy of Manchester, formerly Plant Hill. “[This] was a very difficult school. It had really lost its way. The one thing that has really helped the [new] Academy is a clear articulation of values: why you do something, why you don’t shout at people, why teachers treat other teachers with respect. It has made a massive impact, because we believe in these values, because we work together.”

And what difference do these values – democracy, solidarity and so on – make in the classroom itself? Lipson Community College in Plymouth has taken co-operation to the heart of its learning practices, with the basic premise that all interaction matters. Methods include working in small groups, teambuilding exercises, and role-play activities. Steve Baker, Head Teacher at the College, claims that the transition has “transformed” learning in the school, with a new-found calm and focus in the classrooms, and a step change in the teachers’ performance.

“Students consider the ‘we’ in a learning situation rather than ‘me’”, Baker explains. “Everyone is given a specific role: it’s not as simple as peer-led learning whereby the ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ youngsters help the others. That isn’t what co-operative learning is about. No one is allowed to hog the learning, and no one is allowed to just drift along. It’s through co-operation that we think we can transform and regenerate our urban areas. If you want people with the skills to contribute to their community in a sustainable way, you have to teach those skills.”

For Michael Fairclough, Head of Community and Co-operative Investment at The Co-operative Group, this is the very heart of why co-operative schools matter. In the past, he says, certain faith schools have promoted themselves as having a monopoly on values, and have enjoyed a remarkable interest from parents of little faith who recognise that their kids might find some sort of moral compass for their future lives within a faith environment. But this monopoly no longer holds, argues Fairclough: “Co-operative schools offer a set of values for a secular world, and for a world concerned about sustainability, fairness and justice.”

Students are also encouraged to learn about alternative business models. At Sir Thomas Boughey, a high school in the West Midlands, pupils have set up their own fair trade enterprise, with support and advice from Young Co-operatives, part of The Co-operative College. David Boston, formerly Head Teacher at the school and now CEO of The Schools Co-operative Society, claims he has seen the confidence of students soar as a result: “My youngsters met an executive of a leading clothing retailer and asked, ‘How can you possibly sell jeans at that price? Don’t you know that they would be produced in sweatshops?’ The fact that their enterprise is run as a co-operative gives [the students] a voice that helps them to challenge issues.”

The Young Co-operatives programme also prompts students to set up waste management schemes and horticultural projects, and incorporates ‘green-fingered’ activities into the curriculum across subjects as diverse as science, maths, citizenship and art.

“All our academies have gardens or allotment sites and we’ve put a significant investment into that”, says Bradbury. “We know that it has a huge advantage, educationally. At The Co-operative Academy of Manchester, they’ve even turned half their bike shed into a greenhouse: there are bikes and tomatoes side by side.”

Of course, schools can make environmental education a priority without necessarily becoming a co-operative. Melanie Phillips heads up The
Co-operative’s Green Schools Revolution
, a sustainability programme which offers schools free resources, activities and trips (to its wind farm in Cambridge, for example, or to one of the Co-operative Farms) to encourage children aged five to 16 to take action on the environment. So far, over 3,000 schools have signed up – including a large number of trust schools.

For Phillips, if sustainability is going to be a priority in the UK, “it’s essential that young people are educated about everything from where food comes from to green energy. Kids are the ones that are taking the messages home and encouraging behavioural change in their parents. Our research shows that 66% of parents have been lobbied by their kids to do something greener at home and over 95% have changed their behaviour as a result”. She calls it a kind of ‘green pester power’.

It’s an attractive proposition: take the little ‘pests’ so disparaged by the media for their unsociable behaviour, and harness the energy with which they want to disrupt the status quo. At the same time, teach them values and skills which will provide a stronger basis for a new economy based on greater equality and openness.

Beyond the co-operative movement, many sustainability projects are picking up on the eagerness of children to have a say in how their school is run. Manchester City Council is backing the Kindle Trust project Sustainable Fayre, which gets kids interested in the carbon footprint and supply chains of their school meals. In a pilot project, pupils at Brookburn Primary School taste tested a range of organic soups packed with seasonal, locally sourced veg. The ones they picked were put on the menu for a year, during which time soup uptake doubled, with practically no waste from leftovers. And in Gloucestershire, project YEP! (‘Young Energy People’), run by Severn Wye Energy Agency, is challenging pupils to monitor and minimise energy use and carbon emissions. So far, YEP! has helped nearly 30 schools save an average of £5,500 a year on bills – for which it scooped an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy in 2011.

Of course, if these young people had shares in their schools, its savings in energy and waste might mean even more to them…

Ruth Rosselson is a freelance writer specialising in environmental issues and the co-operative sector.

Find out more:

Co-operative Schools:

Green Schools Revolution:

Co-operative College:

Young Co-operatives:

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