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The Musicians’ Union estimate that between a quarter and a third of a 12,000 strong workforce of musical instrument teachers lost their jobs between 2009 and 2015.

It is a seemingly depressing tale emanating from a nation steeped in musical tradition and innovation – from an island that has spawned a diverse range of musical luminaries, from Edward Elgar to The Beatles and from William Byrd to Adele.

But a trend which emerged in the late 1990s is gathering pace – a trend of music teachers banding together to protect their livelihoods while maintaining high standards.

Swindon Music Co-operative, established in 1998 with around 20 teachers, was one of the first. Membership has steadily grown to more than 50 teachers and the co-operative provides instrumental and singing lessons to more than 1400 pupils in over 70 local primary and secondary schools. Now there are music co-operatives operating across the UK, from Milton Keynes to Newcastle; and a guide to creating more has been developed by the Musicians’ Union and Co-operatives UK.

Janet Hodgson, Swindon Music Co-operative Director, explains that “one of the reasons for the success of the music co-operative here in Swindon is that it is a very cost-effective way of delivering instrumental and vocal tuition. We work in partnership with local schools and deliver tuition during the school day, but most of our contracts are directly with parents. As our teachers are self-employed, we are able to run our business at minimal cost which enables us to maintain affordable prices.”

There are now more people working as self-employed and numbers are increasing at a faster rate than ever before. The RSA predicts that by 2018 they will outnumber those employed in the public sector. Since the banking sector collapse in 2008, self-employment has soared to 4.6 million.

Self-employment as a proportion of employment in the UK has increased from 11.6% in 1985 to 15% in 2015, and the number of households in privately rented accommodation has grown from 9% to 22% during the same period. These trends together make for a significant shift towards more risky economic lives, and are charted in the growth of what I have tracked as a Precarisation Index.

 

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Could co-operation give more security and more market power and opportunity to those involved?

Our new Co-operatives UK report, Not Alone, by Pat Conaty, Alex Bird and Philip Ross looks at examples of freelancer co-ops in the UK and around the world. In France, there is the extraordinary story of the activity and employment co-ops that have banded self-employed people together for over fifteen years, but represent an innovation that has only been made fully legal in January of this year. In India, there is the inspiring story of the Self Employed Womens Association, founded by Ela Bhatt.

The world of work is changing rapidly and, in many ways, we are returning to older structures operating when more forms of work were characterised by dispersed day rate payment and job payment. In the nineteenth century, working class self-help organisations included craftsmen’s guilds, co-operatives, friendly societies, and the first unions.  Together they collaborated and proliferated to improve working conditions, to secure rights and status and to maintain standards of living for workers.

The challenge now, at a time of economic stretch, digital innovation and a retreat from the welfare state, is to renew self-help and mutual aid and to organise, with trade unions and co-operatives, not simply to represent employees but to raise the voice and serve the needs of the self-employed.

 

Ed Mayo

Ed is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK and a former Vice Chair of the Young Foundation

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