The Rochdale Pioneers had the right idea. They created their first cooperative in the midst of the industrial revolution around the mid 19th century when a very large part of the English population was struck down by poverty. As visionaries and idealists, they incorporated education as a guiding principle in cooperative administration. The Rochdale Pioneers believed that cooperative education was a means to achieving collective development. They were convinced that by educating people about cooperation, their capacity to transform their surroundings to suit their ambitions would also be developed. Several cooperative schools were established at the height of the nascent cooperative movement. Then, as the right to education became a universal entitlement in the 20th century, it fell under State authority. Cooperative schools soon disappeared from the English landscape.
The rest of the story is still being written. But when you think about it, are these times so different than the industrial revolution? Consider the ever-increasing inequalities, the lack of ethics in the world of business and organizations, and the in-depth changes in the labour market, which are convergence factors in both of these eras. So it's not surprising that cooperation and cooperative education are making a powerful comeback in 21st century England. Note the trailblazing role played by The Co-op Group, a large consumer cooperative operating a diverse range of businesses under the "The Co-operative" brand. In 2004, The Co-op Group launched a cooperative education strategy in schools across the country. Just like the Quebec cooperative movement, The Co-op Group has educational material produced for teachers wanting to initiate their students to cooperative values.
Meanwhile, as the neoliberal trend grew, the role of British government was progressively reduced and private enterprise entered the schools. A dramatic turn of events occurred in 2006. A very controversial law was adopted that allowed public schools to be converted into private institutions to be managed by trusts to which the State would assign ownership of assets, buildings and lands. The field of academics was shocked. Nonetheless, cooperative trusts were enacted and brought together parents, teachers, students and local partners. Faced with the urgency of protecting schools from the purely financial interests of corporations and big business, such groups formed cooperatives. Communities would take control of their schools–not big business!
But that's not all. The revival of English cooperative schools also set about two assertions. Not only would they be cooperating in the school's governance, but they would teach cooperation in the classrooms! In fact, there's an increasing number of teachers successfully practicing cooperative learning, an approach that encourages the students' participation in their own education through various projects that allow them to develop their cooperative skills, such as listening and dialogue, mutual assistance and co-construction. The purpose is to make them independent and responsible citizens. So far, this is working extremely well in terms of academic achievement and persistence. But that's no surprise. Just look at Finland, a country with a worldwide reputation for the academic excellence of its school system. According to Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator, scholar and author of "Finnish Lessons", Finland's most often and commonly used education strategy is… cooperative learning! Allow me to note that Finland is also celebrated for its highly developed cooperative movement.
We would be mistaken to underestimate the role of cooperatives in schools. More than ever, cooperation is set to become a key ability for today's youth because current issues are global and need to be met with a cooperative approach. As a cooperative movement, it is our duty to advance the importance of cooperative practices from a very young age. Because "co-operators are not born, they are made".