European schoolchildren are getting first-hand experience of running a real business through mini-companies, promoted by the European Union as one of the best ways to learn about entrepreneurship. Now a project in Germany is bringing the cooperative ethos into schools by helping mini-companies become mini-cooperatives.

Either integrated into a school subject or run as an extra-curricular activity, mini-companies are small student-run businesses. Examples include catering, beekeeping, offering computer courses or repairing bikes, and the students sell their services or goods to customers both inside and outside their school. Until a few years ago, none of the 1,100 pupil-run companies in German schools were organized as cooperatives, but a project run by the University of Applied Sciences in Frankfurt, Geno@school, set out to change that.

Working with one regional cooperative federation, a pilot project was started in Niedersachsen in 2006, establishing 11 pupils’ cooperatives at five different school types (remedial schools, basic and middle level secondary schools as well as high schools and professional schools). Geno@school provided teaching materials, supported teachers’ workshops and advised the implementing partners, including the regional cooperative federation, and a network for sustainability education in school. In effect, it served as a consultant, facilitating the creation of the cooperatives, and importantly it also conducted a scientifically based evaluation to test their practicability and give a first impression of the effects of learning in cooperatively organized mini-companies.

The practical results as well as those of the evaluation were so positive that an extension phase was begun in 2008. And even though it had not been part of the original concept, 80% of pupils’ cooperatives in Niedersachsen partnered up with local cooperatives in order to learn from them. Other regional cooperative federations and school advisory bodies joined in and there are now around 80 pupil cooperatives in Niedersachsen, Rheinland-Pfalz and Nordrhein-Westfalen, with an additional 45 starting with the new 2012-2013 school year in Baden-Württemberg and Nordrhein-Westfalen.

According to Dr. Nicole Göler von Ravensburg, a professor in socio-economics at the University of Applied Sciences in Frankfurt and the founder of the Geno@school project, pupils’ coops are seen as an exciting special sphere in school, making apparent connections between individual creativity, forward looking, personal and social competences and the success of the commonly owned enterprise. “Democratic decision making, solidarity in this community of purpose and the inherent equality of promotion for all members have turned out to be very valuable in the educational context,” she said.

“Scientific evaluations strongly indicate that learning how business can work in a cooperative way may provide pupils with an appropriate balance of individual and social skills,” she continued, “as well as knowledge in order to shape their private and professional future in an economically, ecologically and socially sustainable manner.”

To see Geno@school in action, view the film at: or