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The student experience

Co-operative schools: the student experience

Students at co-operative schools feel that the co-operative structure enables them to take ownership of their school, and gives them increased student voice. Jordan, a student at Reddish Vale, explains that when the school adopted co-operative status, “students gained a powerful voice that became just as heard as the voice of the teachers”. Reddish Vale, he says, “became our school”.

Jordan elaborates on how he has been empowered by his involvement in the Trust. He says: “To me, the co-operative Trust is the future. It’s about shaping the way forward, and changing the world for the better. It has helped me a lot in allowing me to get involved in journalism more than I had ever hoped to do before going to college and actually making my stamp on the world. Furthermore, the co-operative approach has allowed me to get more involved in politics, and has pushed me towards my wanted career of becoming a politician.

“I have been able to become more actively involved in all my interests and developed my skills, which enables me to look into my future and gain a further understanding of where I want to go in the world, and where I want to make my mark. The co-operative Trust is an excellent starting point for all students to get their foot in the door of the career they want.”

Ashley Simpson: from founding student member of the Reddish Vale Co-operative Trust to Vice Chair of Manchester Executive Co-operative Party and Chairman of the Stockport County Supporters Co-operative

Ashley Simpson, a former student and founding member of the Reddish Vale Co-operative Trust, agrees that “without doubt co-operation has truly transformed my life”. Ashley’s engagement with co-operatives started young when the football club he supports, Stockport County, adopted a Trust model in 2005, meaning it was owned by its supporters. Ashley became a member of the supporters Trust and, when the opportunity came for Ashley to be involved in the country’s first co-operative Trust school, he invited the-then chairman of the football club to attend a meeting at the school during the consultation period.

He explains: “My understanding of co-operatives came through being a member of the football Trust when I was 14, and I realised I could inspire other young people and those within my community through being one of the co-founders of the Reddish Vale Co-operative Trust.”

Ashley was instrumental in setting up the Trust. He explains: “I was one of the young people at the heart of deciding how we would strategise this and formulate our plans for implementation. This entailed being part of the stakeholder engagement process; I made speeches and presentations aimed at articulating the voice of the young people from within the school to the vast array of stakeholders such as staff, parents, school governors and other community groups. My final involvement prior to conversion was to draw on what we learned through stakeholder engagement, using this information to develop a membership structure.”

He describes how he has been inspired by the “vision and optimism” of the Reddish Vale Trust. He says: “This seemed the only suitable alternative for the school, and for me. The idea of a democratically-controlled school, where parents, pupils, staff and community members had a voice, thus engaging and empowering certain sections of the Reddish community which previously felt isolated and disillusioned, was the way to go.

“Throughout the transition to a co-operative Trust, those driving this within the school recognised that this would be achieved by including young people, and more importantly, putting them at the forefront of the internal changes within the school and the external changes in the local community.”

Ashley is clear on the benefits of co-operation to young people: “The importance of this approach for me is about justice and rights – the rights of young people to govern their own education, empowering them to control their own lives. Young people are given a framework for change, underpinned by a set of values and principles, whereby change can be initiated by creating opportunities for young people to create their own campaigns, projects and social enterprises. To me this is about a long-term, strategic, gradual process of transforming lives through empowerment, engagement, participation and innovation.”

Ashley is now studying Politics at the University of Leeds, and has continued to actively participate in co-operatives since he left school, aiming to spread the message of co-operation to a wider audience. He feels that his involvement in the Reddish Vale Co-operative Trust acted as a catalyst for him to create a “social agenda” within Stockport. Ashley is a board member of the Stockport County Supporters Co-operative. He has done internships with his MP, worked with the Co-operative Group in the Membership and Social Goals Departments, undertaken community work and spoken at conferences – including the major international Mainstreaming Co-operation conference in July 2012, the 2011 Co-operative Councils conference, the Co-operative Party fringe at the 2012 Welsh Labour Party conference and the Co-operative Education Trust Scotland conference 2012. Ashley became Youth Secretary of the Manchester Executive Co-operative Party in 2009, and is now Vice Chair. He has written on his experiences of co-operative education for the UK Journal for Co-operative Studies, delivered training for student members of co-operative schools on behalf of the Co-operative College and helped establish the new governing body at Reddish Vale when it adopted co-operative Academy status in 2012.

Ashley explains: “The key message here is co-operation provides opportunities for all and an opportunity for you to step out of the status quo, to change your life and to change your society. Co-operation is about working together to find solutions. This is the best alternative for business, and this is the best alternative for schools.”

Christopher Hill: from student ‘Co-operative Champion’ to governor/director of the Reddish Vale Academy Trust and founder of Youth Space

Christopher Hill, who is now studying Economics and politics at the University of Manchester, was a ‘Co-operative Champion’ when he was a student at Reddish Vale, which involved sharing the benefits of co-operation with his peers.

He explains how he got involved in the Trust: “I first heard the term ‘co-operative’ in 2007 whilst I was a learner at Reddish Vale Technology College. Phil Arnold (Director of College Improvement, and now Chair of the Schools Co-operative Society) approached me in a corridor one day with a leaflet about the proposed move to a co-operative Trust, its potential impact and the learner’s role within it.

“I saw this conversion as a chance for me to make a difference through a communal goal and I still see co-operation as a mechanism for that. I went on to become one of many members involved in the founding of the Trust and a ‘Co-operative Champion’ for the rest of my time at Reddish Vale.”

Christopher says: “I was lucky enough to have many doors open to me.” During the 18 months Christopher spent as a learner within the co-operative Trust, he was involved in a coffee co-operative that sold Fairtrade Oromo Coffee to students, staff, parents, the local community and businesses. This social enterprise, democratically controlled by its members (students at the school), used its profits to help deliver clean water and education provision for a village in Ethiopia. Christopher says: “It demonstrated to me that education didn’t need to be in a classroom; you could learn through collective social action within a global community.”

Christopher was also part of a creative co-operative, which enabled a group of 30 young people to be trained in creative media by professionals working in the industry. Christopher says: “We then went on to take on a number of commissions. This bestowed real responsibility upon us.”

Christopher has also undertaken public speaking: “Most memorably, talking about my co-operative learning experiences at Mutuo 08 (I was the speaker before Hazel Blears MP, then Secretary of State for Communities).”

Christopher says that, alongside giving him personal opportunities, it is important to mention the value that the co-operative Trust added to the school community, ethos and outlook. He says: “The equality within the membership of a co-operative school Trust is a valuable tool for altering the relationship between teacher and pupil by ensuring the strength of the students’ democratic voice is of equal worth to that of the teachers.

“By allowing young people to democratically invest in their area, you create a cohort of young people that are able to freely express their ideas, thus allowing them to positively affect their community and break down negative stereotypes that often impinge on the actions of young people within the framework of ‘custodial democracy’.”

Christopher’s involvement with co-operation did not cease once he left the school. Since leaving Reddish Vale, Christopher has set up a youth organisation called Youth Space to provide young people with a platform to achieve their goals and express their voice through a three-step process: thinking, doing and changing. Youth Space has just come to the end of its first year, celebrating with a barbecue and outdoor activities day for 200 young people to co-operate and plan their future collective actions. In the coming months/years, Christopher hopes to develop this into a Community Benefits Co-operative. He says: “As a co-operator I feel content in the knowledge that we can mutually support one another to reach our shared goals and secure a brighter future for us all.” Find out more at www.youthspace.info (Christopher welcomes feedback).

Reddish Vale has now converted to co-operative Academy status and, for the past year, Christopher has been a governor/director of the Reddish Vale Academy Trust. He says: “This to me represents the culmination of my co-operative journey and has allowed me to maintain my original aim to make a difference.”

Christopher is also an active member of the Labour and Co-operative parties, and has been involved in campaigns for the voting age to be lowered to 16. He explains: “My involvement in the co-operative Trust opened my eyes to the political realm. The votes at 16 campaign was important to me because it represents a way to secure a voice for young people, the voice I’d had for so long as a young co-operator.”

As a member of the Co-operative Group, Christopher hopes to go on to the Group’s Business Management Graduate Scheme. He says: “The ethics of the movement appeal to me as a learner but also as a consumer. I also believe member controlled businesses are more commercially aware, in the sense that they are better able to meet their customers’ requirements. This is why I hope to continue co-operation in my career post-degree.”

Christopher doesn’t hesitate to advocate co-operation. He says: “I would recommend a co-operative approach to any organisation because it secures a legacy and gives your organisation a value. On a personal level, I have been able to reach some of my ambitions whilst helping my peers and current Reddish Students.”

As the experiences of Jordan, Ashley and Christopher show, young people are putting the co-operative values into action in creative and imaginative ways, learning through practical activities such as running their own enterprises and gaining in confidence by sharing their experiences with others, both within and outside of the co-operative movement. The engagement of young people with co-operatives is lasting beyond their school days, and being taken forward into their future careers. If the number of co-operative schools (and therefore co-operative students), continues to rise at its current rate, the co-operative leaders of the future will be a force to be reckoned with.