There can be an alternative to the conventional, profit-driven model of business, as young people across the county are discovering by setting up student-led co-operative enterprises in schools.
There are now more than 200 registered members of the nationwide Young Co-operatives scheme, in schools, colleges and other youth organisations of all types, shapes and sizes, supported by a range of free, downloadable resources from the Co-operative College. The model has not just spread not just across the UK: Young Co-operators are joined by peers in locations as far-flung as the USA, India, Bangladesh, Africa and the Dominican Republic, all using Young Co-operatives models and resources as inspiration for their enterprises. This, together with a globally shared set of values – self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity – can help members feel that they are part of something bigger, a worldwide co-operative movement.
At the same time as gaining practical business experience, being part of a Young Co-operative gives members an opportunity to put these co-operative values into practice by learning how to work together. Young people run their own meetings and each member has an equal stake in the business, with an equal opportunity to contribute and make decisions. In this way, being part of a Young Co-operative can help students feel engaged with school life. Lucy, Secretary of the Co-operative Crew at Golborne High School, a co-operative school near Wigan explained: “Being in a co-operative for me means being a part of something. I have realised that you can achieve things when you give your time.”
Although Young Co-operatives are generally based on one of three models
- Fairtrade, for which students often set up tuck shops in school,
- the Greenfingers horticultural project which enables Young Co-operatives to become fruit and vegetable growers,
- or Recon, a waste management and recycling scheme –business models are limited only by students’ imagination.
Some of the more creative enterprises include a bicycle repair co-operative at Madras College, Fife, where students maintain staff bikes, as well as sourcing bikes destined for salvage for renovation and sale. The business started with a £100 loan to buy a work stand and a few tools, and profits are reinvested in the business to increase the co-operative’s range of spare parts and workshop tools. Madras College’s Gavin Waterston explained that the co-operative has helped engage otherwise disenfranchised students: “Students who are fairly globally disaffected in school are immediately engaged and enlivened by working within this business. I thoroughly enjoy watching them develop both practical transferable skills and, perhaps more importantly, interpersonal and organisational skills.”
Lipson Community College, a co-operative Academy in Plymouth, Devon, is another school which has really taken the model and run with it. Lipson sustains an impressive number of co-operatives revolving around students’ interests, from a hairdressing co-operative to a big band to a street dance group run as a co-operative. In a demonstration of the co-operative value of self-help, and the way in which Young Co-operatives can actively meet and respond to the needs of both their members and the school community, a ‘summer show’ held by The Ruptors street dance co-operative raised £548 for the group to attend the World Street Dance Championships, as well as to buy new kit for younger teams.
Young Co-operatives regularly hold imaginative events, both in school and the wider community. Their activities include sports days, fashion shows, Fairtrade tastings, breakfast clubs, juice bars, visiting local old people’s homes, organising visits from speakers and sleeping rough for charity to raise awareness of homelessness. They also promote their activities creatively, from designing their own websites to making animated films.
Young Co-operatives can also be a way for students to get behind and raise awareness of causes they believe in. For example, the Glasgow Academy’s Fairtrade Group used their Young Co-operative as a platform to petition the company behind IRN-BRU, Scotland’s national drink, to use Fairtrade sugar, in line with Scotland’s status as a Fairtrade nation. At 29 per cent sugar, they believed it would make a big difference and hopefully make other drinks manufacturers sit up and take notice.
As student-led enterprises, Young Co-operatives decide democratically amongst themselves what to do with any profits from their enterprises. Some reinvest it in their co-operatives (whether by buying further stock or improving their facilities) to allow their enterprise to grow, whilst others use it for the benefit of the school or wider community. A good example of this is Artisans4You, a craft enterprise at Lipson Community College who recently won the Corporate Social Responsibility Award at the Plymouth Young Enterprise Awards. The group have chosen to use their profits to find ways of giving something back. The team worked with nearby St Luke’s Hospice and printed tea towels for sale at their coffee mornings and are also currently producing support cushions for women who have recently had mastectomies, which are being donated through the Breast Unit at a local hospital. Lipson Vice Principal Tracy Ashton commented: “As a co-operative Academy we are keen to provide our students with opportunities which will enable them to put our co-operative values into action. The Young Enterprise team have shown great self-responsibility as confident and responsible members of our community and have shown great care for others in ensuring that their social responsibility was achieved through supporting the work of local cancer organisations.”
Other Young Co-operatives donate all or part of their profits to a charity of the members’ choice, whilst others invest it in micro-finance companies or use some of their profits to become a member of other co-operatives, all in the spirit of co-operative solidarity. The Young Co-operative at Fulston Manor, a co-operative business and enterprise college in Sittingbourne, Kent, recently invested £124.46 with Shared Interest, a charity which lends money at low interest rates to people starting Fairtrade businesses in developing countries.
Registering with the Young Co-operatives scheme, which is free and only takes a minute, enables access to a range of free, downloadable resources offering guidance on how to set up and run a Young Co-operative. For more information visit www.youngco-operatives.coop.