Co-operation remains the key

8th August 2003 at 01:00
Simon Midgley looks at how the Co-operative College is building on tradition to provide a 21st century service

WHILE the Co-operative College has resisted referring to itself as the new Co-operative College, the 83-year-old institution is radically redefining how it meets the educational needs of the worldwide co-operative movement.

Until autumn 2001 the college was based at Stanford Hall, a grade II listed building dating back to the 16th century and set in more than 300 acres of south Nottinghamshire parkland.

With 140 bedrooms, an outdoor heated swimming pool, a cricket square, mini golf course, licensed bar, common rooms and chapel, the college was a splendid setting for long-term adult residential education.

The problem, however, was that the demand for such courses was in free fall. Short bursts of work-based learning is the name of today's training game. And trainers travel to the learners rather than the other way around.

For some years the college had successfully shored up its faltering finances with revenues from a conferencing arm. Despite this, however, in the early 1990s it experienced several financial crises.

An independent review recommended establishing a new college board and the college's mission was reviewed to re-emphasise its commitment to co-operative values.

According to current principal Mervyn Wilson: "It felt that the tail was wagging the dog. We had diversified into the conference business and it seemed the premises were determining what we did, rather than what we were set up to do."

The college is dedicated to promoting its values within co-operatives, communities and society. It offers programmes of training and education to help individuals achieve the skills and understanding necessary to translate co-operative ideals into practice.

"Our mission was being damaged," Mr Wilson added. "And more and more of our work was being locally delivered in co-operatives. It is infinitely cheaper to send one person down to Cornwall than 10 people up to Stanford Hall for a weekend."

It was clear to the college, Mr Wilson said, that if it was to fulfil its mission a radical change was needed. So in September 2001, the college sold Stanford Hall, for which it paid pound;54,000 in 1945, for pound;5m and re-located back to its original home, Holyoake House, the headquarters of the Co-operative Union in Manchester's co-operative quarter.

When the co-operative movement developed in the mid-19th century, one of its key principles was to provide education for its members and employees.

"Co-operatives were self-help organisations developed to address the acute social exclusion caused by industrialisation," Mr Wilson said.

"If ordinary working people were going to run, develop and control their own organisations, you needed to provide education for them - so these early co-ops became pioneers of adult education."

By the turn of the century there were some 1,500 co-operatives in the United Kingdom, many based in the North-west of England.

The Co-Operative Union, created to provide a common voice, initiated early correspondence courses and adult education classes in subjects such as book keeping, accounts and grocery store management.

In 1919 it created the Co-operative College. The co-operative movement worldwide is generally held to have been started by the Rochdale Pioneers, who opened their own co-operative store in Rochdale in 1844. They were inspired by the radical ideas of Robert Owen, the Welsh industrialist and social reformer. The mantra of the co-operative movement is self-help, democracy, equity, equality and solidarity.

The college's work today consists of work-based management and skill training programmes for managers and employees, plus programmes in governance and citizenship that equip people to exercise control for the businesses they own. It also runs training programmes for employees of overseas co-operative movements.

And should you think that the co-op movement today is little more than a quaint Victorian notion with fond memories of the "divi", then think again.

There are 10 million members of the co-operative movement in the UK, 160m in the United States and 700m in more than 100 countries worldwide. Japanese co-operatives travel to Rochdale just to pay homage to the movement's shrine, the Toad Lane museum, which was the original pioneering store.

"A vibrant co-operative sector is now seen as a critical part of a modern economy," Mr Wilson said. Today the co-op is the biggest independent travel operator in the country, the market leader in the funeral business, a major player in the convenience store market and the nation's biggest farmer.

Ninety per cent of the college's training programmes are now delivered locally in the work place. It has 16 full-time staff and 30 associate staff. It trains some 1,500 people annually and has an annual turnover of around pound;1.5m. Only 7 per cent of its work is funded by the Learning and Skills Council.

The second stage of the college's transformation is the development of online training and support for co-operative employees. A virtual induction course exploring the characteristics and values of co-operative work is being piloted.

Some in the movement were sad to break the 56-year-old link with Stanford Hall. Mr Wilson, however, said that he recalls the key piece of advice he received from the Charity Commission - namely that the college was set up as an educational charity and not as an historic buildings charity. "The crucial thing," he said, "is how we can most effectively deliver our mission in the 21st century."

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