Profit from experience

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Jerome Monahan reports on a new certificate in co-operative and fair trade enterprise

It's nearly lunchtime at Pentrehafod School in Swansea and the six-strong student team that runs the Fairtrade and Nutritious Shop (FANS) are busy getting ready to meet the early customer rush.

Sounds of boxes being ripped open, the till being prepared and the shutters being raised fill the air as they do every weekday at the same time. Pentrehafod is one among a growing number of schools with thriving pupil-run co-operatives, selling Fairtrade products and learning that there is more to business than profit.

Kevin McGrother, founder of the Young Co-Operatives, says: "At the last count there were 240 schools on our books selling in excess of pound;100,000 of Fairtrade goods a year. And now a small but growing number of them are opting for what we have styled 'the plus' level of involvement - taking on an Open-College accredited certificate course, with which the youngsters can consolidate all they are learning."

To be a proper participant in a co-operative, members have to understand the aims, values and history that underpin the movement, and the eight-module Certificate in Co-Operative and Fair Trade Enterprise requires candidates to keep a portfolio of work covering these subjects as well as the specifics of running their own business.

Kevin says: "The certificate is roughly the equivalent of a lower grade GCSE. For students that struggle with academic subjects it has the potential to be hugely valuable, showing future employers that a young person has helped to run their own business as part of a team dedicated to helping others less well off than themselves."

At English Martyrs School in Hartlepool, where the first two Junior Co-operatives were set up in 2002, 17-year-old Anthony May is pleased to have done the course alongside his A-levels. "It did not take long. We met up for a day in the holidays and put together the portfolio of evidence and then we had to make a visit to a co-operative. We went to Rochdale and saw the first co-operative established there in the 19th century. It has been really interesting: I knew nothing about the movement before."

Another co-operative plus course is well underway at Sandfield Special School in Liverpool. Teacher Joyce Roddy says: "The sixth formers here run the Munch Bunch everyday in morning break. The course has been really well supported and it is great that the students are getting the credit for all their hard work. Running the business has given them an opportunity to practise all sorts of life skills and our profits have gone to provide goats and seeds for poor farmers in Africa."

Harriet Lamb, director of the Fairtrade Foundation, says: "What they are going to do with any dividends is one of the trickiest discussions young co-operative members will have to undertake. The aim is to make a profit as in any business, but the wonderful citizenship lesson here is being part of something with a strong social worth, not only because of what they do with their surplus cash but also understanding the difference buying Fairtrade can mean for farmers in developing countries."

Every ordinary school co-operative gets a CD-Rom-based set of resources with numerous case studies and lesson plans designed to build students' understanding of the co-operative and Fairtrade movements worldwide. By formally going through these exercises, the students start to build the evidence they'll need for the fully-fledged certificate.

Harriet says: "The other challenges all young co-operatives face concern such things as whether to expand their numbers and how to pass on the torch to younger pupils when their time to leave school arises."

At Sandfield School, the sixth-formers have been holding recruiting afternoons for younger pupils. At Pentrehafod, the FANS group has created a promotional video about their co-operative, using downloaded images from around the world to explain the stories that underlie each of their more popular ranges of products.

Darren Lewis, aged 16, says: "People used to ask us why our chocolate and other items cost more than non-Fairtrade so we had to become good at explaining the benefits that extra can do."

As part of their co-operative training, members are invited to turn objections on their head, answering such questions with the question: "Why is it that normally we pay so little for such goods?"

"There are other skills that these young people have to learn," says Kevin.

"Sometimes they have to decide how to deal with members who may not be pulling their weight. One of the co-operative values is self-responsibility. A co-op is only as strong and effective as the members within it."

Scott Dobson (14) at English Martyrs is a prominent member of the Cocoa-Bananas, one of the school's two co-operatives, and is happy to talk about some of the challenges.

"It is hard agreeing with one another sometimes, particularly if we are discussing what levels of stock to buy or whether to take a gamble on new lines," he says.

Jeremy Kane, a Catholic youth worker at English Martyrs, says: "Being a member of the young co-operatives brings with it all sorts of opportunities. A group of us are off to meet Adivasi tea farmers from India later this month."

In addition to these one-off events there is a regular round of local and national young co-operative meetings. Kevin says: "These are typically day-long events. They consist of workshops and presentations from co-operatives and fair trade organisations. At some we've also had Fairtrade producers speaking. These have included a coffee farmer from Ethiopia."

A year on from the launch of the co-operative plus certificate, teething problems are due to be resolved. The cost of taking the course is coming down to pound;22 per learner, with the time-consuming obligatory trip to visit a co-operative business being dropped altogether. Instead, it will be sufficient to invite a Traidcraft or Fairtrade spokesperson into the school.

"The only other potential headache," explains Kevin, "is the worry of a total ban on all confectionary sales in schools, which seems likely following the recent School Food Trust report. But the sale of Fairtrade chocolate in the hope of raising funds for charitable donations is probably going to remain acceptable. Still, if chocolate is ruled out, the damage would be far less now than when we started - school co-operatives can now choose from more than 1,400 products."

lWebsites Young Co-operatives Traidcraft International Co-Operative Alliance School Food Trust

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