Ikastola. Do Cooperative Schools Create a Cooperative Society? #ChurchillFellowship Post 7.

I should more beware of seeking simple answers to complex problems. One of my KLOE’s (Key Lines of Enquiry – yes, I confess to an audit background) on my trip to the Basque Country was to get a sense of: ‘how you develop a society where there is a widespread understanding of cooperatives, and the skills and behaviours to successfully operate them?’ 

My thinking revolved around the idea that the knowledge and skills required to work in a cooperative business don’t just ‘appear’. Most people probably aren’t ‘hardwired’ to behave cooperatively. If we were, society (and business) would probably be very different to what it is now. We wouldn’t spend so much time on team building activities for starters…

So, almost as soon as I arrived in Bilbao I started asking the question; “how do you develop your understanding of cooperatives, skills and behaviours?” (I’m a top quality companion for a random conversation on the bus or in a Pintoxs Bar…, no footballing small talk here!)

It’s the Ikastola (stupid), or is it…? Almost too quickly the answer fell into my lap, cooperative schools, specifically Ikastola. From several conversations the following picture of cooperative schools and their link to Basque society emerged:

  • Ikastola have a very specific place in the Basque Country and Culture,
  • They go back to the 1900’s and were created to maintain the Basque language through teaching,
  • They survived the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s and continued throughout the time of Franco,
  • The public use of Basque was prohibited during this time, so the effort to continue would have been immense,
  • From the conversations I had, there was a sense that the ‘covert’ use of Basque in the Ikastola helped to maintain the language,
  • Following the death of Franco in 1975, the Ikastola have flourished under the Basque Government,
  • Being ‘cooperative’ seems to be closely associated with being an Ikastola, as much as using the Basque language,
  • Figures of 30-40% of schools being Ikastola (and cooperative) were quoted in conversations I had,
  • The Ikastola fit into the category of schools that are ‘private’ but are supported by the government (colegios concertados),
  • Government funding covers the ‘teaching’ costs and parents contribute the rest,
  • The contributions from parents ranged from; cash (up to 1200 euros annually), contributing to the work/running of the Ikastola (eg working in the canteen), or fundraising festivals (eg Kilomtroak, where people walk a 5-10km route).
  • Here is a link to a Spanish Wikipedia article on Ikastola, it hasn’t been easy finding this stuff (lots of information is buried behind academic publication paywalls).

Does this add up to cooperative schools creating a cooperative society? This is a difficult one to answer.  I’m edging towards yes, but I need to go and talk to a clever Professor who knows lots about behaviour change science and education (hello Carl, see you soon).

I can’t find a definitive figure for how many Ikastola there are in the Basque Country although the 30-40% figure feels reasonable, if that’s what he locals think…  The balance between running the school with a focus on the Basque language or as a cooperative also seem to vary. There is reference to some being more cooperative focused than language focused, but many are a mixture.

What is clear though, is the expectation that parents will be involved, and have ‘ownership’ of what happens around their children’s education. From the Spanish Wikipedia article “involvement of parents with this educational model are part of the Ikastola’s DNA, compared to the public or private model of the rest of schools”.

This understanding and demonstration of cooperative behaviour in Ikastola seems to fit with a number of the guiding principles for cooperatives. Perhaps this school influenced behaviour is enough to influence what happens next in the wider (cooperative) society?

More Questions than Answers. My head is spinning from thinking about this. I will need to come back to it with another post, in a while.

In the meanwhile, it’s worth a read of this 2016 BBC article ‘Basques reinvent themselves as an education power’, by Sean Coughlan, Global Education Editor. Apart from the fact that the Basque Country is doing very well in education (comparable to the Scandinavians) the journalist has found statistics I couldn’t. Apparently around 50% of the schools in the Basque Country are the public / private model (colegios concertados) and the higher level of engagement of parents in these schools is emphasised. He also makes the link with the approach and entrepreneurialism in Basque Culture.

If you want to get a feel for what an Ikastola is like, have a look at the website of Lauaxeta Ikastola, (link here) which is  about 15 miles outside Bilbao and is owned by a cooperative.

I do very much like this phrase from the school mission: “…help pupils to mature as individuals with a view to achieving self-fulfilment and finding their place in society that is increasingly complex, and thereby contributing to its enhancement”

I wish I could have gone to that school, maybe then I wouldn’t have jumped so quickly to a simple answer for a complex problem…?

Mission and vision from the Lauaxeta Ikastola website.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Schools have a huge influence on the understanding, skills and behaviours of the students that attend them (it’s one of the reasons we have schools).
  2. If you closely involve parents in the ‘schooling’ experience, there is a chance that the understanding, skills and behaviours will ‘rub-off’ on them.
  3. If the school is a cooperative and operates using cooperative principles, there could well be a wider impact on society.

Picture Links: Answers: Simple by Wrong / Complex by Right by Wiley Miler https://www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/2016/01/20

Lauaxeta Ikastola website. Mission, vision and values page.

My other Churchill Fellowship posts can be found here: Churchill Fellowship 2018

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for your latest blog which I enjoyed. I look forward to reading your next.

    For over 40 or more years Co-operators have been struggling with questions you raise about the role of the state education system in supporting the development of a co-operative society.

    You rightly recognise complex issues are at play. Essentially, do we have a chicken and egg situation? Do we need a co-operative society to have a properly functioning co-operative education system, or vice versa? Further, what cultural barriers prevent knowledge transfer?

    To help address some of these issues Co-ops and Mutuals Wales organised ‘A Co-operative Education for a Co-operative Wales’ in April 2017.

    To read the Coop News report on the event ‘A Co-operative Education for a Co-operative Wales?’ follow this link:https://www.thenews.coop/116686/sector/regional-organisations/a-co-operative-education-for-a-co-operative-wales/

    To read in Welsh (courtesy of Emrys Roberts, Cardiff) follow this link: https://www.dropbox.com/s/phflz20gvt0de15/CoE%28%20Welsh%29.doc?dl=0

    A more detailed report is available on request from david@cooperatives-wales.coop

    To be clear we are not proposing developments along the lines of the English model, although some lessons can be learnt. Also, the potential for much confusion exists. For example, I was amazed to find that some thought we were proposing that the large food retailer, the Co-operative Group, should take over the running of Welsh schools. Nothing could be further than the truth but it does indicate we are engaged in a marathon and not a sprint!

  2. This is interesting, Chris, especially the connection with the Basque language and its relevance to us in Wales. Building sustainable communities is vital in any healthy society. But here in Wales, we have an extra dimension – our sustainable communities also need to factor in the linguistic dimension. We’ve been pretty good so far in promoting Welsh language schools and in producing bilingual 16 year-olds, many of whom are from homes where Welsh isn’t spoken. But that’s when our problems begin. Too many of our bilingual school leavers see no further need or opportunity to use their bilingual skills in further education or in the workplace. They move away to find work, they start families and they gradually lose their bilingual skills.

    So, is the Ikastola concept what we need to provide the second injection (after Welsh-medium schools) to place the language on a sustainable footing within sustainable communities? Would the widespread promotion of the co-operative via the Ikastola establish the means whereby local youngsters can succeed within their own communities, earning a decent income that enables them to afford a comfortable home and to raise a family?

  3. Aitor Izagirre

    Hi Sir, first of all it was a surprise to see a nice article about Ikastola. I am working actually in Abusu Ikastola as “father” and member of council where together with school director and teachers we try to improve our Ikastola.

    If you want more information about Ikastola and cooperative schools, I am not totally agree that Lauaxeta is the best example. I suggest to check this website:


    These are Ikastola that are together as a cooperative. Lauaxeta, as you can see is not there and it is one of the most expensive “private” schools in our country. The name included is Ikastola but it is not part of cooperative schools. They work as cooperative but again, it is one of the most expensive schools.

    I suggest to talk for example with Koldo Tellitu. He is the president of “Ikastolen Elkartea”.


    Best regards


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