Inspired by co-operative values, a double-decker school bus is bringing hope to Calais’ child refugees

The Big Yellow Bus pop-up school reflects the rebirth of a radical, co-operative approach to learning

School Bus Project Trustee & Director, Co-operative Schools Network


How would you imagine Calais refugees sleeping rough might share our co-operative values?

The answer is in the concept of a mobile learning project which takes physical form as a converted Big Yellow Bus (BYB), a double-decker which is currently working as a pop-up school for those stranded in Calais after the closure of the main jungle refugee camp last year.

Inside, twice a day, up to 70 learners from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Libya – among others – are sheltering from the chill winter winds while engaging in discussions and music sessions downstairs. Upstairs are three compartments: the main teaching area supports around 20 students improving their English through themes such as Identity, Health and Well-being, Art and Place.

A middle area is for games and cards, with banter and chatter shaping maths, language and problem solving experience. At the front is a quiet study room for four people, dedicated to those who need a retreat, a place for counselling or personal reflection.

The teaching team are unpaid volunteers – including some of the refugees themselves who offer an astonishing range of experience and expertise – working for The School Bus Project which is modelled on co-operative lines and is supported by the UK’s Co-operative Schools Network.

The core SBP team in Calais consists of three: driver and two lead educators, who are working with volunteers from a number of other projects, such as Help Refugees, Refugee Youth Service and Refugee InfoBus. Social media has helped to spread word of this project in a way that would not have been possible ten years ago.

The core idea of sharing learning expertise and experience builds on the values and principles of a powerful new movement in state schools over here. The quiet revolution in education has been the astonishing growth in the number of Co-operative schools from a single pioneer school in 2007 to around 650 today. The network of Co-operative schools (SCS/CSNET) is naturally characterised by the universal values and principles of the global co-operative movement.

The family of co-operative schools in this country includes around 50 co-operative academies and around 600 schools in co-operative foundation Trusts. Worldwide, there are thousands more. They share a commitment to local accountability and to achieving the highest possible standards and best learning outcomes for their pupils, by working with their communities and with each other.

The School Bus Project – is therefore a powerful symbol which reflects the re-birth of co-operative education and its values, blended with the use of social media and new technology. The BYB is both the teaching space and the symbol for this project which has been crowdfunded and supported through the Co-op Schools Network team.

On a daily basis, the SBP Big Yellow Bus drives from a Calais warehouse compound shared with other projects to one of the main distribution points for aid, where food, sleeping bags and support are provided. Simple human contact empowers the project, while onboard solar power also helps in a very practical way: recharging mobile phones to help our learners stay in touch with home

Around 750 refugees are sleeping out in the wild tonight, with no shelter or provision of any kind. This number includes children and young people – from one year of age upwards. The youngest student on BYB is currently just 10 years of age – a bright and very articulate Afghani boy. While the situation speaks volumes of political paralysis and inhumanity, the Calais projects of which we are just one will do what we can to make life there a little more bearable.

If anything was designed to show how technology, social media and values-driven education can combine in 2017, this particular project speaks volumes about the potential of the new approach: the School Bus Project is an object lesson in the application of co-operation and the co-option of a radical approach to learning provision for our fellow citizens in the most challenging of conditions.