Co-operative education against the crises

coop-ed-event-1By Paul Strauss

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.

I 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.


Education: A spanner in the works; a tool in breaking the cycle of offending

Adeela Ahmed Shafi

image asI started my PhD this year. The topic is one of many that have interested me for some time, became more closely defined doing my MEd here at the GSoE and went on to be crystallised from something you might consider quite unrelated.

I did a unit on Education Policy in a Global Context as part of my Masters in the Psychology of Education pathway and whilst reading around the unit and doing the assignment, it dawned on me how Western politicians, researchers and charities often make big claims about the role of education in terms of transformation of a society and the opening of opportunities and so on.  I agree with the claims.  As a country we spend masses on International Aid and many of the projects focus on education.  I myself have raised funds to build a school in rural area of Pakistan believing this same thing. It took 6 years to do but my belief in it kept me going.
imageIt puzzled me then that why is it when we have kids in prison that we do not seize the opportunity of doing the same for them.  Why are we not able to give them the opportunities that we believe education can provide when they are in ‘custody’ and in a controlled environment 24hrs a day for a set period?  Agreed that when they come out they return to the same environment which makes them vulnerable to re-offending, however, should true education not provide them with the ‘light’ to take control and have the agency to resist the pressures and offer an alternative way?

1Hence, I thought that is what I want to do a PhD on.  I want to explore the educational experiences of kids in prison, I want to see what can be done to change the way they view themselves.  I want it to be a place which, as well as ‘punishment’, offers a chance to change through education, presents realistic opportunities for alternatives…actually prevents re-offending.

It’s a tall order I know, but its got to start somewhere and for me it is with my humble PhD on young offender learning.

Be good to get other people’s ideas on this.  Please do comment.


80 by 18: Reflections and ruminations


The Learning Lives group are involved in a number of innovative research projects.  One of these is the 80 by 18 project which forms part of Keri Facer’s work for the AHRC Connected Communities programme. Here Paul Strauss (the project researcher) discusses the project and calls for contributions…

We held our second 80 by18 project workshop yesterday at the M-Shed, and now seems a good time for sharing some reflections. Around 30 people were at the table representing themselves and their organisations, almost all of whom work directly with Children &Young People in some form or have a strong interest in the work of those that do.

Despite a lower turnout than the first workshop in February, it was a really productive session. Workshop participants – some 80 by18 old hands, some newbies – got really engaged and helped us continue generating ideas for “experiences”, as well as conducting a first review and thematic categorisation on the 300 or so ideas that have already come in.

Here are some reflections – both mine and others’ – on the gathering process, and the ideas we’ve received so far:

  • “Bystander syndrome” – people think it’s such as good concept that someone else is bound to put in their idea, or one just as good. Pin people down! Get the ideas in! We can sift out duplicates later
  • Diversity of ideas – to get a good spread, it matters a great deal where ideas are sourced from –geographically, culturally, and organisationally/ institutionally. We’re doing all sorts of things to try to source diverse ideas, including street fieldwork in particularly targeted neighbourhoods, making links with community organisations and interest groups all over the city, and finding ways to capture the views of more marginalised young people.
  • Quirky ideas? Some really inspiring ideas have come in, but taking an overview of them the more fully formed ones (idea + resources to make it happen + why it’s important) seem to reflect white, middle class, professional Bristol. What’s missing – felt several participants – is “quirky old Bristol”. Quirky is a word we keep coming back to in this project…

One submitted idea that was held up as emblematic of the type of thing we’re looking for was: “Visit every Poundland in Bristol”. On the surface, this seems a bit ridiculous (where are they all anyway, and why would you attempt to do this?). But actually it’s a quirky challenge that takes you places you mightn’t ordinarily go – including geographically/ sociologically – and is as much about the journey/ the process/ the adventure and what you’d see on the way. Shared reflection on this led to a new project coinage – “the Poundland factor”!

Another idea which was ‘favourited’ was “pick your own blackberries and make them into jam”. Why? The simplicity of it – on the one hand – but more the fact that it’s not a one off experience but something  formative, involving skills and knowledge that you are likely to come back to many times in life and which may open up a different perspective on your locality and its resources. So there we have a “blackberry jam factor”, too.

A final reflection is that the 80by18 project is already about much more than developing a list. Some really revealing conversations are starting to take place within its gaps and “spaces” – about its significance as neutral space for networking and connecting and sharing ideas across the boundaries and structures that people working with children & young people  find themselves stuck within.  There is a clear sense that, as resources get squeezed, and as structures are dismantled and networks disrupted from the centre, these are the sorts of spaces where interesting conversations might happen and loose or not so loose federations spring up.

The call for ideas has been extended to 20th of April. Please do keep putting your own in, talking and sharing and encouraging others to submit theirs. Pin people down! Face to face is best. We’re adopting the ethos which should be familiar to anyone who’s been involved with recent mass social movements: if you think of something that needs doing, go for it! (He writes, before leaving the country for three weeks…)

Paul Strauss

To be cool or preferring not to be: Visiting researchers

The Learning Lives group welcome visiting researchers interested in our research areas.  Here Solveig Roth describes her experience as a visiting PhD scholar…

I’ve had the privilege of staying 6 months with the ‘Learning Lives’ research group at the University ooslounif Bristol led by Prof. Keri Facer as a PhD candidate from the Department of Educational Research, University of Oslo. Keri Facer has also been my supervisor. I have found this stay very rewarding. The PhD theses ‘To be cool or preferring not to be’: Young people’s reflections about their learning lives is part of the ethnographic ‘Learning Lives’ study of 60 people from a multi-cultural suburb city in Norway (Prof. Ola Erstad). I have followed 14 young people from this project as they negotiate a variety of social contexts in the course of their everyday lives analyzing the funds of knowledge that are available to them (Roth, forthcoming).

The research group here in Bristol conducts relevant projects that involve also young persons’ learning lives in order to be prepared for the future (global) learning context that is bound to come (e.g. learning in the city). I think that the approach of this group has helped me a lot to put focus on applying new ideas in this new and intensely developing field of research. The way we have worked together in a group discussing articles and papers to be published, the ethics and the knowledge in the feedback process, have put me in a position to understand and get new inklings on my own research. In addition, I have been given the possibility to participate and present my work in many interesting research events and workshops organized by the GSOE along with other international PhD candidates and researchers. I look to continue learning from and (working with) these new colleagues of mine.

Many thanks for this stay!

Solveig Roth, University of Oslo.

Creating safe spaces to discuss work in progress

 A select few of us met today to discuss  Adeela Shafi and Jo Rose‘s paper in progress entitled: Restrictions into opportunities: How boundaries in the life course can shape educational pathways.

Students on the part-time BA in English Literature and Community EngagementThe paper raises a number of interesting issues related to mature students attending university and the relationship between the ‘restrictions’ they have experienced in their learning trajectories, experiences and histories. Adeela and Jo want to make the point that in later life these restrictions can be ‘re-seen’ and become opportunities instead.

We spent an hour talking through the paper together, identifying the key arguments and how they might best be presented, our different (interdisciplinary) take on the issues and literature and discussing the strengths of the paper as well as how it might be improved. We were also able to share our own experiences of writing, techniques to improve academic writing and the sometimes stressful process of reviewing.

At the end of the session we talked briefly about our perspective on the usefulness of this kind of session. Everybody present felt that although initially nerve wracking (for the authors putting their work ‘out there’) we had all gained something from the process of discussion. It was felt that it was important that the space we created was non confrontational and that the encounter built a collegial space that enabled deeper reflection, interdisciplinary sharing and critical engagement with the ideas in the paper.

Everyday language Everyday Literacies Conference

Helen Manchester writes: The Centre for the study of Literacies At the University of Sheffield has just announced their keynote speakers for their ’boutique’ conference this summer.


Many of the keynotes are people we already work with (such as Ola Erstad at Oslo University) or those we would love to invite down to work with us.

I presented at this conference last year and found it to be a great small conference where you could chat to everyone and where keynotes were top quality and discussion in depth.

Abstracts need to be in by end of March so get writing!

Informal/Formal learning and MOOCs

Sarah Eagle writes: I’ve joined the MIT Media Lab Lifelong Kindergarten course Learning Creative Learning  which is my first experience of a MOOC (massively open online course). Several strands of this course are likely to interest others in the Learning Lives theme.

A screenshot of the home page of the course

Mitch Resnick and a lot of lego: the homepage for the Learning Creative Learning online course

During week 2 (the syllabus is here) informal/formal learning is a topic for discussion, and in the online seminar a brother and sister, Joi and Mimi Ito, who have followed very different paths, discuss their experiences. Mimi Ito is an academic at the University of California, Irvine. Joi (her brother) says:

I think it’s fair to say that the most important thing that I learned in my formal education was touch typing in junior high school and possibly the importance of camaraderie and athletics during high school wrestling. Despite my completely dysfunctional relationship with formal learning, I’ve been able to learn enough to run companies, give talks and be allowed to go to some of the same conferences as my sister.

Each week, the course participants are given a set of readings, video clips, an online seminar and an activity. In week 2 we were asked to think about informal learning in our own lives, and the activity was to read Seymour Papert’s essay on the “Gears of My Childhood” and write about an object from your childhood that interested and influenced you.

Following the emerging traditions of interacting with other students on a MOOC, I’ve tweeted and posted my response online. I’m interested in watching the way a MOOC works (or doesn’t) and would be pleased to hear from others in the Learning Lives theme who share this interest.