As MPs debated the budget, Stephen Twigg, newly elected MP for Liverpool West Derby, hosted a reception for the Co-operative and Workers’ Education Association (WEA) to launch a new partnership to ‘help strengthen civil society, empower citizenship and strengthen democracy.’ John Hayes, MP for South Holland and The Deepings in Lincoln, and Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, proudly displayed his Co-op; membership card and spoke passionately about the importance of learning for a just and cohesive society. He spoke about a ladder of learning, for self-improvement and social mobility, and also for its own sake, enriching the fabric of life. “Community earning is at the heart of what this government is about.” Hayes pointed to a picture of Wilberforce, reminding us of his mission to abolish slavery, and said that he too was on a great mission to spread social justice through learning, and to help everyone fulfil their potential and be the best they can be. John Hayes recently responded to a letter from Democracy Matters and invited us to meet with him in mid-July, so we are hopeful about finding ways of strengthening learning for citizenship, despite the difficult financial times.
The WEA is a democratic membership organisation and the UK’s largest voluntary sector adult education provider, run through a voluntary movement of 450 branches as well as professional staff. The Co-op is also active in education, through the Co-operative College and numerous cooperative schools, as well as online resources for teaching citizenship, which I was not aware of. Many years ago I wrote a book on how to create ‘citizenship schools’, which included activities and ideas for making schools more democratic and empowering. I would love to work with schools on these issues again.
Events like these are perhaps more important for informal conversations and connections, so I came away with several opportunities for promoting learning for democracy and bringing people together round issues as diverse as monetary reform, economic democracy and citizesnhip.
Several people remarked – with a nod to the green screens and budget debate – that financial austerity will make closer cooperation and sharing of resources even more important. Coincidently, in today’s Education Guardian Michael Bichard writes about the obstacles to cooperation between local agencies – inflexible frameworks and funding, narrow targets, costly auditing procedures, and over-cautious governance. His point was that if cuts are to be fair, they need to involve people at the front line and that agencies need to work together to ensure that services are tailored to local and individual needs.
The renewed partnership between the Coop and WEA is long overdue and should lead to many fruitful and perhaps unexpected innovations to meet the needs of the diverse communities they work with. And significantly, both organisations have positioned themselves to make a positive contribution to the ‘Big Society’ philosophy of the Coalition Government. That’s political skill and astute understanding of what their members and customers want.