Co-ops strike winning chord: Swindon Music Co-operative

Swindon Music Co-operative

The Musicians' Union (MU) 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 music 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 ensuring that standards remain high).

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, said: “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.”

"I wanted to be self-employed, but with some security as to finding pupils on a regular basis – as well as being part of a group for training needs." Helen Godfrey, Violin teacher

The co-operative is a not-for-profit organisation, owned by its self-employed members and governed by an elected board of directors. It demands exacting standards from its members, with teachers required to demonstrate a high level of musical performance and teaching skills, an understanding of teaching and learning, and a commitment to professional standards and personal development.

While its members are in essence self-employed, the co-operative negates some of the negative issues associated with self-employment. 

"Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, and life to everything… Without music, life would be an error." Plato

Janet Hodgson said: “Working as a private peripatetic music teacher can be a very isolating experience. The Music Co-operative enables our members to feel part of something, and to feel connected to other like-minded professionals. 

“They can share teaching ideas, resources and exam tips, benefit from professional development sessions, and get involved in musical events.” 

On a practical level, the co-operative supports its members by providing an administration and invoicing service, in addition to professional development opportunities through annual training sessions and teaching observations. 

Helen Godfrey is a violin teacher and member of Swindon Music Co-operative. She said: “I joined when the music co-op was set up. I wanted to be self-employed, but with some security as to finding pupils on a regular basis – as well as being part of a group for training needs.”

Woodwind and piano teacher Debbie Matthews echoed those views. She added: “Easy billing and payment is a major bonus. Then there’s the training, development, mentoring, a network of like-minded teachers and a sense of working in a community who understand the situation of music teaching in schools in Swindon.”

Both believe government could do more for the self-employed in terms of access to relevant benefits and increased assistance with tax returns. The support provided by the Musicians’ Union is highly valued however. And with self-employment on the rise the numerous benefits to forming a co-operative are sure to strike a chord with the UK’s musical teachers.