Sunday, 15 March 2015

Cooperation Unbound: a new model for democratic education

History has shown that once authoritarian hierarchies have secured a foothold, they tend to focus on consolidating their top-down control. Whether the institution in question is the government of a country, a body with a dedicated function (e.g., an army, an orphanage, a care home), or a commercial enterprise, so long as the powerful few at the top are not effectively held to account by those who have to comply with their instructions, they will often maximise the benefits to themselves at the expense of everyone else.

One of the most notable features of the democratic struggle during the 19th/early 20th centuries was the drive to enable the disempowered majority to learn why and how they should go about getting a greater say about the decisions that affected them. Reformists who wanted democratic cooperation to replace authoritarian controls recognised their cause could only be effectively advanced if education played its part. And in quick succession, learning providers such as the Working Men’s College (founded 1854), Cooperative Women’s Guild (1883), Ruskin College (1899), Workers’ Educational Association (1903), Cooperative College (1919), National Council of Labour Colleges (1921), were set up.

But in recent decades, support for democratic education has slipped down the agenda. And with every economic downturn, funding from state and philanthropic sources was not only cut back, but it would henceforth be more tightly squeezed into employment-focused training to meet the needs of a largely non-cooperative economy.

In order to rebuild the momentum to democratise state and business institutions, four steps should be taken to develop a new model for democratic education with reciprocity at its heart.

First, lifelong learning providers should explore with representatives (from social, cooperative, and community enterprises; trades unions; worker-owned/worker-run partnerships; and other progressive institutions) what type of education will best encourage and enable more people to contribute to the success of those organisations.

Secondly, they need to put in place partnership arrangements to deal with course development, financial commitment, and impact review. These should be at a level that would be neither too large to render communications superficial nor too small to hinder economies of scale.

Thirdly, the partners can agree their organisational backing and funding support on the basis of how they will benefit in directly quantifiable economic terms and as measured by SROI (social return on investment), from a range of courses and programmes co-designed to raise understanding of how the barriers to democratic cooperation can be overcome.

Finally, when partnership structures, course contents/delivery, and funding agreement are in place, further investment support can be sought from relevant government agencies, social investors, CDFIs (community development finance institutions), and progressive foundations to help with the continuous improvement of the learning opportunities and the widening of their accessibility.

Back in 1879, Professor James Stuart of the University of Cambridge, a leading proponent of adult education, remarked that the cooperative movement “is a democratic movement if there ever was one. It therefore cannot repose on the good sense of a few; its success will depend on the good sense of the masses.”

It is time we accept that we cannot rely on goodwill funding or grants dispensed to those on the receiving end of a supplicant relationship. We must integrate the objectives of social justice, economic vibrancy, and political inclusion into a reciprocal partnership, and use that as the foundation to revitalise democratic education.

You may also find this relevant: ‘The Case for an Open Cooperativist Development Agency’
A longer version of this essay, which may be of interest to those in the UK involved in lifelong learning, or cooperative and community development, can be found here

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