Trade School: Offering Learning Through Barter by Colin Hynson

A few months ago a group of students gathered in the centre of London to take a short course on portrait photography. The students were taken through the workings of the camera, the use of settings, different kinds of lighting and tips and techniques for creating a portrait. The students did not have make a cash payment for the course but the teacher did not go away empty–handed either.

Trade School


Instead students brought along barter items that the teacher had requested in advance. In this case the teacher asked for canisters of 35mm film; an introduction to a celebrity willing to be photographed; access to interesting places to take shots of or a strange and interesting hat.


This class was part of a wider and relatively new open learning movement known as Trade School. All Trade Schools have one thing in common. Every teacher is paid for their class with barter items brought along by their students and money will never change hands.


The first Trade School was run at the start of 2010 in the Lower East Side of New York. A small group of people who ran a skills sharing website called ‘OurGoods’ were given the opportunity to use a vacant shop to run something along similar lines and the idea of Trade School was born. For just over a month over 800 people took part in over 70 classes. Demand to both teach and to learn outstripped the spaces allocated so the organisers decided to repeat it the following year.


By this time news of Trade School New York had spread and there were requests for help in setting up Trade Schools in cities around the world. The New York team now dedicated themselves to creating a web platform that could be used by Trade Schools anywhere. There are now Trade Schools in cities across the United States as well as cities worldwide such as in Paris, Geneva, Dublin, Athens, Berlin and Quito.


Trade School arrived on these shores in 2011 with the launch of Trade School Cardiff. It was set up by a social design group called thinkARK. Talking about setting up a local Trade School, one of the organisers Simon O’Rafferty said:


Something immediately resonated with me and other in thinkARK. Initially it was the idea of an alternative form of learning that is not academic, politically aligned or overtly hippyish. thinkARK has always been interested in exploring ways of connecting people from different cultures, classes and geography through learning


Some of the first classes offered by Trade School Cardiff were taught by refugees and asylum seekers living in the city and included introductions to the cultures and languages of Syria and Afghanistan alongside classes on sewing and playing the ukelele.


United Kingdom

From that start Trade Schools are beginning to spread across the country. Alongside Cardiff, there are established Trade Schools in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Norwich, London and new Trade Schools have been launched in Brighton, York and Loughton. Trade School London started in April 2012 in Dalston with classes on subjects as diverse as bicycle maintenance, a Cyanotype workshop, using Photoshop and baking bread. There are still Trade School classes going on in Westminster and West Norwood.


Many of these Trade Schools with the support of a larger organisation, usually with a social or community remit. Trade School Westminster is supported by both the Civic Systems Lab and Impact Hubs. Trade School Glasgow was set up by a charity called Social Ideas Care Factory which focuses on health care and community development. Trade School Norwich works with The Common Room, a group that is exploring new community uses for one of the city’s many redundant medieval churches.


Participants in Trade Schools, whether as teachers or as students, have commented on how the relationship between the teacher and students is different from more traditional educational spaces. Part of the reason for this is that the only qualification that any teacher needs is a passion and expertise for their subject. Trade Schools operates on the principle that although not everybody is an expert everybody has some expertise which can be shared. When a class is proposed Trade School organisers (who are all volunteers) technically ‘approve’ the class but this is more to do with administration of the website than with anything to do with the qualifications and experience of the teacher.


Bartering for learning also changes the way that teacher and student work with each other. The value of the class is based on the non–monetary value of the items requested by the teacher. Caroline Woolard, one of the original organisers of Trade School New York, said: Barter is not meant to portray ‘haggling’ – it’s about mutual aid, trusting strangers and sharing resources. It’s beginning to move away from money and not just say, it’s either money or free, because we want people to feel obligated to each other.


Laura Billings, an organiser for Trade School in London, also emphasises that the relationship between teacher and student is determined by the barter system: “The beauty of Trade School is that bartering for knowledge allows us to depart from the rapid, impersonal nature of exchange that has become so commonplace amidst our cities. Every single Trade School class is in fact dependent on the relationships encountered during the act of exchange.”


If you want to know more about Trade School and to see what classes are being offered in your local area then visit the website. Not only can you sign up for any classes on offer but you can also have the opportunity to teach a class. If there isn’t a Trade School in your town then the website offers advice and support from established Trade School organisers on how to go about starting your own Trade School branch.


To find out more the Trade School website address is:


Easy Indian Cooking

Case Study 1

A Cooking Class with Trade School Norwich
On a Saturday afternoon in September anybody walking past St. Lawrence’s Church in Norwich would have smelt something coming out of the building which most people would not normally associate with medieval churches. “Easy Indian Cooking” was being taught by Preeti Lall Durowoju. There were 17 students getting an introduction to the different flavours and cooking techniques of India. The course was very popular and was fully booked up very soon after it went up on the Trade School Norwich website.


Preeti came across Trade School Norwich by accident. She was searching for adult education classes for herself and found the Trade School Norwich website and decided to get involved:


I loved the whole concept of learning through barter. I loved that it meant anyone could come there to learn something new even if they didn’t necessarily have the means to pay for lessons elsewhere. It wasn’t just the subject matter that drew students to this course. Many of them emphasised the barter system as a positive reason for taking part:


We attended the class because we love Indian food and the idea of the ‘wish list’ was attractive – both ethically and economically! I found out about Trade School by social media and was instantly impressed by the bartering idea. This makes learning accessible to everyone with a range of options offered.


Video Editing

Case Study 2

Video Editing with Trade School Westminster
On the Haymarket, just a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square, is Impact Hub Westminster. It’s one of over 40 Impact Hubs around the world that support individuals and groups which are working on community–based and environmental projects. It is from here that Trade School Westminster offers a broad range of courses to the people of London.


Chris Santana runs a local video production company and in September he taught a class at Impact Hub Westminster on how to use Final Cut Pro X (software for digital video editing). Chris was attracted to the idea of teaching this class with Trade School as he saw it as a way of meeting people who were planning to use video in their work. Like many others the idea of bartering for knowledge was something that he felt changed the relationship between the teacher and student:


I love the idea of bartering. It makes it more casual for both of us and gives more humanity to the teacher–student relationship. It makes it more like friends sharing knowledge rather than simply attending a class.


There was also one aspect of bartering that appealed to him: “What’s also great is not knowing what you can receive from your barter list, the uncertainty makes it more interesting before class.”


Colin Hynson is a freelance educational writer and consultant. He works with Trade School Norwich and is currently involved in planning a conference for Trade School organisers from across the EU.