‘A remarkable teaching and learning co-operative’

A new book, Co-operation, Learning and Co-operative Values, is published this month by Routledge in which the authors ‘describe, analyse and assess the growth of co-operative education’. In a chapter by Stephen Yeo titled ‘The co-operative university? Transforming higher education’, he describes the Social Science Centre as

“a remarkable teaching and learning co-operative named ‘The Social Science Centre’. This will be well able to speak for itself, offering ‘free, co-operative higher education’, ‘organised on the basis of democratic, non-hierarchical principles, with all members having equal involvement in the life and work of SSC’ (socialsciencecentre.org.uk). The Centre’ s name may be seen as a direct heir of the Owenite understanding – indeed invention – of social science as critique of the anti-social or dismal science of competitive political economy.”


SSI course reading for week ten

Is it week ten already?

We’ve extended the course a further week to accommodate some scholars’ availability and will use the extra week to read more relating to the history of the co-operative movement. This Thursday, we’ll be discussing the following:

Facer, K. Thorpe, J and Shaw, L (2011) Co-operative Education and Schools: An old idea for new times? The BERA Conference, September 6th 2011, London, UK.

History of the co-operative movement (2): Gender

Co-operative Women's Guild

The class consisted of twelve people this week, with three new scholars joining us, helping to make it a very rich and interesting class.

The seminar mainly focused on Alistair Thomson’s article: ‘Domestic drudgery will be a thing of the past: cooperative women and the reform of housework


We began by reading Gary’s notes from last week. This helped remind us of what we discussed and it is always interesting to read reflections on the class from one person’s perspective. Both Woodin’s article last week on co-operative education and this week’s article on the Co-operative Women’s Guild focused on a similar period in history around the turn of the 20th century, when clearly the co-operative movement was significantly expanding and thriving. In contrast, several articles in this week’s newspapers said that the UK Co-operative Group was ‘ungovernable‘ and ‘collapsing under the weight of its debts‘.

Discussing the reading

As we turned to Thomson’s article, we each spent a few minutes going back over it to identify one or two key passages that were of interest to each of us. This was a technique we used the previous week and it gave us time to reflect on the article and each contribute to the discussion.

We learned about the Owenites’ earlier efforts to “abolish private housework” and how the Owenite radical vision and practice remained a source of inspiration to co-operators. The biography of Robert Owen was a particular source of inspiration for women in the co-operative movement.

Within the co-operative movement, there remained a distinct tension between seeing household work as “domestic drudgery” but also the source of women’s dignity. Many argued that household work was restricting women from engaging in public life and so women sought ways to introduce efficiencies into their housework, allowing them more time to do other things. Unlike the Owenites, co-operative women, on the whole, did not seek to divide household labour within the home between genders, but rather argued for a division of labour among co-operative households so that services for the household such as washing and cooking, were collectively owned and operated. Just as industrial work was becoming visibly shaped by a division of labour and “modern methods of production”, women appealed for the introduction of new technologies into the home to improve the conditions of work, ‘lighten the load’, and create time for other things. The operation of the household (the ‘women’s workshop’) must have seemed backwards compared to the operation of the factory. However, as Thomson notes: “Co-operators were usually more interested in gaining control of economic relations than in reforming the relations of domestic life.”

What struck me from reading the article and our subsequent discussion was that the earlier Owenites, who tried to address inequalities of gender and overturn the “prison” of domestic life, was a negative critique of emerging capitalist social relations as a whole (i.e. the practice of ‘communism’). In contrast, the co-operative movement a few decades later was in part inspired by the visionary experiments of the Owenites, but primarily concerned with working class control of capitalist economic life. Co-operation was not an alternative to the capitalist mode of production, but regarded as an improvement on it. Economies of scale, machinery, division of labour in the workplace, mass-production, and private proft-making were all welcomed and even efforts to improve conditions for housework were judged on their contribution to the wider economy, rather than the household economy. In a sense, co-operative women had an interest in improving the ‘economy’ in its original etymological meaning of ‘household management’, while co-operative businessmen turned their attention to the industrial economy. The co-operative movement was after all, a working class reaction to the exploitation and alienation of industrial work. “While labour leaders agitate for better wages and a better distribution of wealth; we women ask for a better distribution of work.”

Another aspect of the article which interested me was the emphasis that the co-operative movement and the Womens Guild placed on private enterprise as opposed to reliance on the State. We learn from Thomson’s article that “the main strategy of Guild domestic campaigns was to seek change through co-operative rather than municipal action” and that Guildswomen  favoured co-operative solutions “because working through the state seemed too indirect.” It raised the question for me about the extent of the state’s involvement in people’s lives at that time compared to today and the extent that we have come to take the idea of a ‘welfare state’ for granted in a way that was inconceivable for most people at that time.

In summary, our discussion touched on a number of themes: the continued power structures within the home; the desire for all workers, but especially women, to have more time for leisure, education and public life; the continued drudgery of work; the conditions of labour both inside and outside the home (while women suffered in the home, men also suffered in the factory and mines); the degrees of status within the working class; the lack of security as housing was attached to terms of employment; how the household is not seen as a political space yet conditions people’s identities; the outsourcing of domestic labour (e.g. the production of washing machines) to countries with poor industrial conditions; and the impact of war on women’s roles in society as well as the post-war introduction of the welfare state;

Reflections on SSC

In the final part of our class, we shifted the discussion to ask what issues of gender there are at the Social Science Centre. Mike noted that perhaps for the first time, this class had an equal number of women and men attending. Below is a flavor of the discussion. I have left my (incomplete) notes unedited to offer a raw sense of the directions our discussion took.

Gary: Why don’t we discuss issues of gender and race more often? There isn’t the political charge any more.

Jane: Depends on the settings we put ourselves in. Jane chooses to be in those settings where race, sexuality and gender are discussed.

Tim: Media has compressed history. There is no sense of time among his students. It erodes politics.

Lucy: Are young people even questioning inequality? Is education teaching the working class about these things? Co-op women’s guilds sought space/time for education.

Tim: Middle class students are more aware of the pathways in life.

Sarah: Opportunity for us to discuss these issues at SSC. How to structure our space. Dorothy Smith. The positions we write from. It does matter that we almost never read anything written by women. Most people in the room are white. We don’t discuss sexuality, private lives. We have formed intellectually. We started by writing about ourselves/biographies. We need to work on the issue of childcare. Kids aren’t allowed in this building (Pathways, where we meet is a ‘halfway house’ for homeless adults).

Mike: Harney and Moten: Undercommons. Talking about alternative universities. Not really alternatives. They just replicate the university. The SSC is such. Need to find a way of radicalizing ourselves again. “Who isn’t in this room?” We used to have kids in the SSC.

Kathleen: It’s “being schooled” in the true sense. Older generations are looking after their parents. Younger generation are looking after their children.

Jane: To what extent are we embodying the world that we’d like to live in? We need to put the effort into designing a curriculum, choosing texts, etc. that is more diverse. How do we issue an invitation that is more open? Embody it in the aesthetic?

Andrew: Single parent of disabled child for 12 years. Impact on carer. There’s a whole structure of subordination that crosses gender, class, race.

Mike: How can we stretch ourselves again?

Jane: There’s an extraordinary thing that’s going on here. It’s about trust. Able to be vulnerable. In a loving way. Age, class, disability, gender, sexuality, race. Important moment when Lucy said she didn’t understand something.

Sarah: Discussion about what is valuable to us. Collective decision.

Wendy: Do we know where we want to go? What we want to achieve?

Joss: SSC was always about higher education.

Gary: The last 10 mins been ‘ground breaking’ in terms of SSC.

Lucy: What the SSC means to me is changing, every week.

Laura: Wants to study social science, but has SSC, but not the same as university.

Jane: SSC is about higher education and it’s up to us to define higher education.

Lucy: I’m really enjoying myself. That’s all that matters.

Sarah: Questioning patriarchy is a form of higher education. Radical for some people.

I/Joss think that by the end of the class there was a general sense that the SSC was entering a new stage of its development and those scholars attending the class welcomed the opportunity to radicalise the nature and purpose of our co-operative. This had partly been the intention of studying the theme of ‘co-operation and education’ this term, so that we created space to read, reflect intellectually and then take forward new practices within the SSC. It was intended that the course this term became a critical and reflexive space for our co-operative as a whole and this is clearly taking place.

Next week we will focus on ‘co-operative learning’. Laura said that our ‘homework’ is to recollect a positive learning experience and explain it without writing it. “When have you had your most positive learning experience, what factors enabled this and what kind of learner do you think you are? Make, cook, bring something!”

The History of the Co-operative Movement: Knowledge should be distributed like tea and flour…



We returned to the Co-operation and Education course this week after a ‘half-term break’ to explore the history of the co-operative movement. This excellent session was facilitated by Lucy and Mike to whom we are all grateful.

The session was split into three sections:

  1. Recap of the previous session, Co-operative Principles and Values;
  2. Read and discuss Woodin’s Co-operative education in Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: context, identity and learning;
  3. Explore how the history of the co-operative relates to the SSC.

1. Recap of the previous session

At the start of the evening we took some time to remind ourselves what we had covered before ‘half-term’. The previous session had focused on co-operative values and principles and, to help us remember what we discussed, we found it helpful to take it in turns to read aloud from the class notes. We found this process useful and, as one scholar commented, it allowed us to “replay the session in our minds.”

2. Read and discuss…

For the second part of the session we agreed to read over Woodin’s text and highlight a sentence(s) and explain why it was meaningful to us. Woodin (p. 78) argues that education has been central to the co-operative movement for the last two centuries, yet education within labour and social movements remains an under researched area. What followed was an insightful discussion about precisely that. Below are some of the comments made by scholars and ensuing discussions by the group:

  • After reading Woodin’s text, one scholar was surprised to learn that co-operative education had a much longer history than formal state education and, in fact, that co-operative education had played a significant role in influencing the provision of state education. However, Woodin (p. 78) adds a word of caution here and argues that the uniquely co-operative ideals and practices that have been contributed to by co-operative and private working-class education are often lost when written about this way. As one scholar commented, “state education closed down radical/alternative education…and through this process co-operative education is managed out of existence.”
  • So important was education to the early co-operative movement that in 1844 the Rochdale Pioneers had proposed that 10% of their surplus income should be devoted towards it. Although this proposal was ultimately disallowed by the Registrar at the time and a much lower figure of 2.5% was finally agreed.
  • Another scholar commented that before the Elementary Education Acts 1870 to 1893 there were a number of different experiments with education, which included the Sunday School Movement, independent schools and, interestingly, the Socialist Sunday School Movement.
  • One scholar commented that there has been a long history of ‘radical education’, ‘self-help’ and working class autodidactism. Indeed, before the industrial revolution, weavers had higher literacy rates than the general population and often read books as they worked. Both Jonathan Rose and E.P Thompson provide good accounts of this.
  • One scholar commented that, in places, extreme left-wing working class areas were referred to as ‘Little Moscows’ with the Chopwell Soviets cited as an example.
  • Another scholar commented on the importance of the built environment as part of the co-operative movement, which could “inspire awe and pride” (Woodin, p. 81). That the “built environment of the co-operative movement offered a “visual resource, a distinctive grammar of construction and design, that provided a continuing induction into the palpable identity of the values of co-operation.” (Woodin, p. 82)
  • One scholar commented that the co-operative movement helped to create and/or point towards alternative subjectivities and “incubated social transformation…” (Woodin, p. 79) and that there was an “interconnection between ownership, learning and common identity…” (Woodin, p. 81) and that “co-operation was a way of life in which individuals might be immersed from birth and subjectivity was fostered through participation in such a way that the co-operative movement ‘produced’ distinctive types of people.” (Woodin, p. 89)
  • One scholar argued that within the co-operative movement that ‘alternative subjectivity’ was often a ‘gendered subjectivity’ with many skilled and semi-skilled males finding it difficult to accept women. An example of this is provided by Woodin (p. 84) who quotes ‘A True Co-operator’ who complains about the “coarseness and popularisation” of co-operative movement that occurred with the appearance of women:

Times have changed; for whereas the meetings used to be of a few working men, who sought for knowledge and instruction – now the meetings are large to excess, composed principally of women, babies and youths of both sexes, tempted by rich got-up tea…

  • One scholar commented that being part of the co-operative movement itself was a form of learning that could be considered as practice or a rehearsal for life in a post-capitalist society:

…co-operation could serve as an educative force. Learning within a democratic social and economic movement was thus connected to wider purposes of social changes.

  • One scholar identified within the text a tension between ‘liberal’ and ‘vocational’ education’; however, Robert Marshall (cited in Woodin, P. 89) argued that this was a false dichotomy:

The old definitions are no longer accepted, that the ‘social’ student is concerned with ends and the ‘technical’ student with means. Both are concerned with ends and means; and technical studies can be the opportunity of educating that familiar figure in educational addresses ‘the whole man’.

We concluded this section by discussing that whilst the co-operative movement had a radical history it had a tendency to become consumerist rather than the labour controlled co-operatives that were envisioned by the early pioneers of the co-operative movement. Instead, we discussed how the co-operative has come to be associated with dividend points and passing mercantile savings on to consumers and, as one scholar reminded us, “Co-operatives were an experiment for social change; not about shopping, but a new social form.” One scholar commented that you could trace the radical roots of the co-operative movement in Lincolnshire back to Robert Parker who founded the Lincolnshire Co-operative in 1861 with 74 members.

3.    How does the history of the co-operative relate to the SSC?

The third and final part of the session invited us to consider how we could relate the history of the co-operative movement to the SSC. We probably created more questions than we answered, but it was a useful and interesting discussion.

Again, we revisited the importance of the SSC having its own permanent physical space that offers “a visual resource, a distinctive grammar of construction and design that provided a continuing induction into the palpable identity of the values of co-operation.” (Woodin, p. 82) One scholar described the original idea for the SSC with a bakery and café and SSC courses going on upstairs. One scholar mentioned a community interest project in Newcastle that might be useful to consider, the Star and Shadow Cinema. Another scholar questioned whether private property would change the nature of the SSC and whether occupying the city was more important than a permanent physical place and whether the SSC more exciting because it is nomadic? We considered alternatives to ownership, such as stewardship, passing through and being a habitant.

We considered our relationship to other co-operatives and how we might work together. One scholar cited Mondragon as an example of how a number of different co-operative could work together. Other scholars mentioned other co-operative projects that they are involved in, such as the Co-operative Abundant Earth Community and the Hospital University project.

We concluded that the history of the co-operative is its strength, but also serves as a warning. As one scholar pointed out “Co-operatives are not the future, but might be vehicle to something else. Creating new forms of social being; creating something that wasn’t there before it’s on the way to communism – we need to reclaim that language.”





SSI course reading for week seven: Co-operative history (1)

Hello All

The next two weeks we shall be doing the history of cooperatives. We have chosen two texts. The first kindly suggested by Joss and the second by Mike.

Cooperative education in the nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries: context, identity and learning‘ Tom Woodin (2011)


Domestic drudgery will be a thing of the past: cooperative women and the reform of housework‘ Alistair Thompson (1988)

Look forward to seeing you all on Thursday.

Best wishes,



Mervyn Wilson: Co-operation or Competition – which way forward for education?

Below are details of Mervyn Wilson’s talk at the SSC AGM on May 11th. All welcome.

Many describe the the education system as being in crisis, with legislative reforms impacting from Early Years to Higher Education. Central to these reforms is a notion that greater competition is needed to drive up standards. Can marketisation and privatisation of the system improve access to and standards in education provision? Will these strategies reduce or exasperate the massive inequalities in the system today? Is there an alternative? Are strategies based on co-operation and collaboration more likely to succeed in addressing these issues?

Mervyn Wilson is Chief Executive and Principal of the Co-operative College. The College has led work to develop alternative co-operative models in the face of educational reforms. Today there are approaching 500 schools using co-operative models, with many more consulting. The national network, the Schools Co-operative Society provides a distinct alternative to the rapid growth of the academy chains. Can these models be extended into Further and Higher Education, and is there now a real opportunity to build a distinct co-operative vision for education provision?

Mervyn has worked in the co-operative sector for over thirty years. He specialised in member education, co-operative identity and governance and has led work to develop a distinct co-operative element in the state education sector. Today there are nearly 500 co-operative trust schools and converter academies and a national network, the Schools Co-operative Society. He is a member of the Board of the Co-operative Institute for Peace and Social Cohesion, a Trustee of the Co-operative Heritage Trust, Chair of the Royal Docks Co-operative Learning Partnership and a Fellow of the RSA.