Robert Owen Pilot – Bringing young people together for a brighter tomorrow

25 May 2023

Hajer Newman, Policy Intern Cwmpas, interviews Martin Downes and Dan Roberts ahead of the launch of the Robert Owen project

Welsh Government is working with co-operative development agency, Cwmpas on a one-year pilot to raise awareness and understanding of co-operatives in primary and secondary schools across Wales. The Robert Owen project will enrich existing programmes which support ‘Careers and Work-Related Experience’ (CWRE) as a cross-curricula element of the Curriculum for Wales.

The project will be available to all schools in Wales and will focus on understanding the role of co-operatives within the economy exploring issues such as social impact, health and well-being, fair work, and a greener environment.

I was fortunate enough to spend time with Cwmpas colleagues, Policy and Engagement Officer Dan Roberts and Learning and Development Lead, Martin Downes, to find out more about the project.

Both Martin and Dan are lifelong champions of co-operative working. Dan has rigorously researched co-operatives and worked to raise awareness of their social values with young people. Martin is a published author and has worked with learners in further education colleges up and down the country to engage them with co-operative business models.

We start our discussion with Wales’ rich history of co-operatives. Robert Owen himself was born in Newtown and was a pioneer of the Chartist movement, a group which fought for rights for the people of Wales. He campaigned for education rights for young people, 70 years before they were introduced across the rest of the UK – a man who was most definitely ahead of his time!

The introduction of the project marks a reinvigoration of the spirit of Robert Owen, as the programme aims to embed co-operative values in the next generation of entrepreneurs. Martin sees the project as an opportunity for young people to ‘develop a co-operative mindset.’ We delved deeper into what co-operative values are and what this means for school learners.

What are co-operative business models?

Co-operative business models are underpinned by bringing people together to collaborate for good, in a non-competitive and democratic way. Co-operatives work to serve the economy and society by serving the interests of people and the environment. Co-operatives models prioritise these values to the same level as making a profit.

The importance of collaboration means that everyone is heard, and this creates a strong foundation rooted in the community. Research has also shown that co-operative business models generally create fairer working conditions and pay higher wages.

Co-operative business models are ‘a good business idea, we’ve almost forgotten about.’ Martin explains that when we talk about businesses, we are defaulted to think about them through an individual’s eyes. Stories that are told and retold to us about the way people do business tend to shape our understanding of it. Martin likens this to a ‘rag to riches’ story, about one person overcoming obstacles to achieve their successes. Adding to this, Dan researched young people’s attitudes when thinking about their career options. ‘Often, when we asked young people about starting a business, most thought they would have to move to London and wear a suit and tie to become a businessperson.’ Social business models can work to flip these narratives of bustling city centres and high-powered boardrooms. They bring people together to address a social problem for the better of everyone involved. Wales has over 50,000 people working in social businesses, and this is set to grow.  Learning about this sector can offer young people a way of working which centres around the economic and social well-being of their communities, whilst providing employment that pays a fair wage and does not cause harm to the environment. Social businesses offer an alternative vision of doing business in which young people can see their future in Wales.

The project will be open to all schools where pupils from all backgrounds will be able to learn about social business models. The project has the potential to reach out across a whole generation, offering young people an opportunity to ignite fresh and creative solutions to the problems their communities face. While not every student may start their own business, Dan highlights that the values instilled from co-operation are still beneficial. Co-operative working promotes dialogue and emphasise the benefits of working together for a greater cause, lessons which go hand-in-hand for the future citizens of Wales, working together for a better society wherever their path takes them.

Teachers and learners will be supported by the project. Cwmpas will provide guidance to educators with resources to help deliver the project. Wales is a leader when it comes to creating change. The launch of the Robert Owen project represents an opportunity for all the young people of Wales to engage with social business values for a brighter tomorrow.