Working at the Co-operative College: an educational experience!

Natalie Bradbury

Today is my last day at the Co-operative College after nearly eight years. Fittingly for an organisation with education at the heart of everything it does, my time at the College has been an extremely educational one!

I’m leaving to finish my PhD thesis, which is looking at Pictures for Schools, a scheme to get original works of art into schools in the twenty years immediately following the Second World War. Whilst superficially about art, the focus of my PhD is really education: I’m exploring Pictures for Schools’ links with shifting ideas about education, about the kind of citizen that education was aiming to create, and about how that fitted in with changing experiences of society and culture in post-war Britain.

I wouldn’t have been doing a PhD at all if it wasn’t for the College. Having gone to university at the wrong time of my life (18), doing the wrong degree (English Literature at a redbrick university), and being totally and utterly unprepared for university as the first (and probably last) person in my family to ever go to university (and having not really known anyone who’d been before or understood what universities were for), I graduated feeling pretty convinced that academic study wasn’t for me.

Being at the College and working with people doing research changed all that, as did opportunities to attend conferences organised and co-organised by the College, exploring co-operative education in a historical and contemporary context. I was inspired by hearing from speakers such as Tom Woodin from the Institute of Education, who explored education as something which takes place in a much broader context than schools and universities but has a long tradition of being undertaken in many of the co-operative movement’s different activities, from running businesses, to political campaigning, to youth, leisure and voluntary activities.

At the College I realised for the first time that academics are normal people, that there are many ways and places to do research (that aren’t just in a university) and that it’s possible to do research that relates to the world and both engages with and can impact on real people and places.

Natalie Bradbury Woman's Outlook talk, People's History MuseumIn particular, I enjoyed exploring the National Co-operative Archive. As a writer and a journalist I was particularly interested in its holdings of Woman’s Outlook, a magazine published by the Co-operative Press in Manchester between 1919 and 1967 which combined fairly conventional women’s magazine content with an explicitly political message, and had a highly educational role for its community of readers. This education took place not just between writer/editor and reader, but peer-to-peer.

I also interviewed some members of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, an organisation of primarily working-class women which was active for more than 100 years until its winding down in 2015. These members described the Guild as being like their ‘university’ and emphasised the extent to which it had empowered, supported and politicised generations of women.

Among my personal and professional development during the time I’ve been at the College has been giving talks about Woman’s Outlook magazine, first at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum in 2013 and then to different audiences, from Manchester Histories Festival and the Working Class Movement Library to a Women’s Institute group.

The Edinburgh Companion to Women's Print Media in Interwar Britain coverThis led to an invitation to contribute a chapter on Woman’s Outlook to a book being published by Edinburgh University press this October: the Edinburgh Companion to Women’s Print Media in Interwar Britain (1918-1939). Going through the peer review process for the first time has been another steep learning curve, and it took more than three years of work. However, it’s been a great way to focus my ideas and to think about parallels with my PhD research in terms of the means and methods by which learning and education can take place informally, outside of formal education, and bigger ideas about the links between education and constructions of citizenship.

Once I finish my PhD I hope eventually to turn my PhD thesis into a book and to continue my personal and research interests in education.

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