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    For “getting it”: an ethnographic study of co-operative schools

    Davidge, Gail (2014) For “getting it”: an ethnographic study of co-operative schools. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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    The marketisation of the educational sector continues to shape educational provision, policy and practice on a worldwide scale (Apple, 2001; Ball, 2008; Giroux, 2004), ostensibly providing ‘freedom’ through the conflation of consumer ‘choice’ and ‘equality of opportunity’ via the invisible hand of the market. The assumption that competitive markets will produce better schools and outcomes for their students veils the extent to which a large proportion of the world’s population are positioned as marginal actors, unable to ‘compete’ or ‘choose’ as equals, as they engage on a significantly uneven playing field (Mills & McGregor, 2014; Reay, 2012). Historical and global (cf. Fielding & Moss, 2011; Neill, 1990; Wrigley et al., 2012) examples of democratic alternatives to the traditional institution of ‘the school’ have provided rich evidence of the radical possibilities for social change in the form of case studies and academic critique. However, the absence of a cohesive platform which allows a multiplicity of voices and diverse contexts to collaborate together and develop a more effective voice, risks positioning these more radical models at the fringe of educational reform. This represents a significant challenge for extending democracy within educational contexts. The co-operative movement represents a possible solution to this, especially in terms of developing its capacity to create a powerful alliance of partners which can reorient the means and ends of public education towards social justice. Indeed, in just six years co-operative schools have come to represent the third largest grouping within the English public education system (Munn, 2013) and in January 2014, there were just over 700 schools in the UK which have committed to adopting co-operative values (self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity, openness and honesty, social responsibility and caring for others) within the very heart of their school’s ethos (Shaw, forthcoming, 2015). Although the first English co-operative trust school opened in 2008, sustained analysis of this model has not been undertaken to date. Therefore, this research project attempts to offer the beginnings of a critical conversation that considers the possibilities and challenges that such a model of schooling might have to offer by undertaking a systematic examination of the recent emergence of a ‘co-operative’ model of public schooling from within the socio-historical context of decades of neoliberal educational ‘reforms’. This piece of research maps out how this model is variously conceived as a more ethical brand by some, and as a radical project which creates the necessary conditions for democracy and social justice to flourish by others. This research therefore, seeks to understand how tropes of “getting it” both constitute and confuse readings of freedom and equality in education as nascent understandings of co-operative school membership become slippery subjects of cooperative school discourse. By undertaking a critical discursive analysis of claims that co-operative school governance structures allow everyone to ‘have a say’, this thesis develops a theoretical engagement and provocation of ‘voice’ in education as it becomes increasingly troubled with and by attempts to answer the question, ‘what is a co-operative school?’ and ‘what can it do?’ In order to answer these questions, data drawn from critical ethnographic fieldwork undertaken at three co-operative trust and academy schools during 2012-13 was considered alongside discourse analysis of an emerging body of ‘texts’ that sought to inform and promote ‘co-operation’ in school. As a result of exploring the accounts of Others who offered a range of narratives that reflect the ‘making up’ (Hacking, 1990) of the co-operative subject, these different versions of events brought into view both the challenges and the possibilities that ‘cooperative’ schools and their members face; as the values and principles of cooperation are also shaped (but not necessarily determined) by claims made for equality which reflect the messiness of everyday school life. Furthermore, this piece of research highlighted the extent to which students’ experiences of “getting it” (cooperative schooling) troubled corresponding rights to be included in decision-making processes as the conditions of co-operative school membership are intersected by multiple axes of difference and inequality, both within educational discourse and in wider society. This research suggests that despite the promising emergence of a model of schooling that places a collective approach to civil society at its core, historical asymmetries of power and entrenched marketisation of educational provision and practice tended to prevail. This severely limited the extent to which schools were able to create the conditions of possibility for everyone to “get it” and ‘have a say’. I thus argue that, in order for co-operative schools to resist the neo-liberal appropriation of freedom through the lens of the ‘rational’ individual consumer of education, significant restructuring of governance arrangements is required alongside considerable advocacy work that addresses students’ rights to be included and protected as full members of the school community. This thesis closes with a number of observations and recommendations that contribute to reinvigorating the debate about what cooperative schooling can do, in addition to highlighting how this research project offers further insight about the conceptual and methodological dilemmas that work to shape the construction of children’s agency and subjectivities as students are variously positioned as heterogeneous subjects of co-operative education and educational research.

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