The History of First Question Co-operative
Pam Walker was the Partnership Manager for the Suffolk Education Business Partnership in the 1990’s. She worked closely with Richard Risebrow, the then Member Education Officer at the Ipswich Co-operative Society. He sent her to the Co-operative College near Loughborough for an Education Conference and that started her lifelong commitment to co-operation, co-operative education and the co-operative movement. Richard and Pam worked together developing innovative education projects with schools and teachers and as the work grew and developed, members of the Dynamix Workers Co-operative from Swansea were enlisted to come up to East Anglia to facilitate some of the work. In 2001 Pam was delighted to be appointed Richard’s successor as Member Education Officer on his retirement.
The work developed rapidly and was expanded to cover the Norfolk as well as the Suffolk trading areas as the Society had merged to become the Ipswich & Norwich Co-operative Society (INCS). One of the first questions that Eric Hall from the Society’s Member Education Committee asked Pam was, why aren’t we using local people to do this education training. This ‘First Question’ started the ball rolling to establish a worker co-operative of trainers locally who could be the delivery arm for the Society’s educational work.
Over the next year, Dynamix and Colleagues from CLADA (Co-operative Learning & Development Associates) ran a ‘train the trainers’ course alongside the existing work and over 25 people took part. At the end of the year 12 trainers threw their £1 coins into the middle of the circle and First Question Workers Co-operative was formed with Bill Knowles, former Deputy CEO of the Society, becoming its Company Secretary.
During the following year the balance shifted gradually from a joint Dynamix/CLADA/1st Question workforce towards a purely 1st Question trainer base. The Co-op Education Centre in Ipswich, where Pam was based, housed the new business and the staff of both organisations worked closely together to provide a variety of programmes to schools and community organisations across the two counties on behalf of the Society. Carol Cook became the first Administrator and worked in tandem with Pam and the Society. Andrea Coptcoat succeeded Carol and the organisation continued to grow from strength to strength.
In 2002 Pam felt the need to continue to motivate teachers from schools in which they had worked and so the first Co-operative Education Conference took place at the Royal Hospital School in Holbrook, Suffolk. Co-facilitated by 1st Question, Dynamix and CLADA, the conference aimed to keep the enthusiasm for co-operative education vibrant and to further develop the experience of the teachers and participants. Case studies from other areas, activities and debates as well as much co-operative fun and engagement made the events extremely popular. The success was memorable and over the next 9 years the annual conferences became not just a local event, but also a regional, national and international event. People from all walks of life interested in co-operative education came along from all parts of the UK and the abroad, to share best practice, learn and re-energise. Members and staff from other Societies also attended and were impressed with the educational work being carried out by the INCS and 1st Question and subsequently part funded the conferences, sponsoring and sending delegates from their own Societies.
In 2007, through the input of the then United Co-operative Society, it was agreed to set up a branch which became First Question North with the existing co-op becoming First Question East. A scoping conference was held at Bradford Football Club and a 6 month ‘train the trainers’ programme ensued. Funding from United Co-op supported the development of the branch and its work on the M62 corridor and much was achieved by First Question North. The structure of secondary co-ops is not an easy one and both East and North worked hard to ensure common standards of delivery and maintain a united brand. First Question North eventually wound up in 2012 some time after the merger of United Co-ops with the Co-operative Group and First Question East therefore dropped the ‘East’ tag.
Programmes ranged across a wide spectrum, serving schools, teachers and communities in the Society’s trading area. Bids for funding for various projects were successfully made, some in partnership with others and all programmes were tailor made to meet the current needs. Pam was invited to speak about the work at various events, conferences and meetings. Awards were won and the call for the work developed in line with curriculum and community demands. First Question also began to develop their own clientele and the business thrived and was hugely valued across the UK. It was felt in co-operative circles, that the ground breaking innovative educational work being done by the INCS and First Question was leading the way in the UK and indeed was emulated and replicated across many Societies in the UK.
Following the merger of INCS with the Colchester and East Essex Co-operative Society, the newly formed East of England Co-operative Society (EECS) wished to take a new direction. First Question went independent and moved to new premises at Brightspace Social Enterprise Centre in Ipswich in 2010. Pam, having moved from EECS, then became a Member Director of First Question herself. Cuts in regional funding and schools budgets in subsequent years hugely reduced the work available and First Question became a dormant company for a couple of years. During this time the remaining eight Directors continued to meet, run occasional projects and plan for a future when co-operation and co-operative education had a resurgence.
That happened at the beginning of 2015 and is continuing to date!
First Question’s reputation and presence had lived on and three major pieces of work emerged during the course of 2015 which First Question was asked to be part of. These involve ….
These important developments have involved the scaling up of First Question Co-op throughout 2015. Current directors met again with colleagues from Dynamix and CLADA to refresh their training methods and re-connect with colleagues. Meetings have more than doubled as the project work has been developed and two scoping events have taken place to recruit new trainers. Eight new trainers are currently taking part in a ‘train the trainers’ course which is working with the existing seven directors to embed the values and principles of co-operation, upskill, learn the methodologies and work together to develop the new programmes. First Question is currently looking for office space and will soon be looking to appoint an administrator. They have been receiving enquiries regarding their work from various areas and are pleased to be connecting with interested groups and likeminded organisations both in East Anglia and the UK.
And so the story unfolds and co-operation and co-operative education continues to thrive and develop.
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