What is a co-op and is it for you?
A home education co-op (co-operative) can be a fantastic way for your kids to make connections and be exposed to a range of group activities. What is a co-op?
An Australian co-op is quite different to an American one. Co-ops in the US are often parent-run schools where parents teach classes – complete with projects, homework and tests – and may be absent when not teaching.
By contrast, co-ops in Australia are not a quasi-school arrangement, instead a co-op consists of families who meet regularly for activities. Parents might run the activities together or take turns. Instructors may be brought in to lead some sessions, but parents retain the primary responsibility for their child’s education and remain present always. Meetings (in person or online) are often held to discuss the direction of the group and plan for future activities. In some cases, the only difference from a home ed group is in the name; in other cases, co-ops have more structure, planning and defined expectations.
Starting your own co-op
Locating a suitable venue
Some co-ops alternate between homes . These are small, often with a set number of families. Others hire a venue or choose a free public space such as a park with adequate shelter.
When looking for a venue, you must also consider the sorts of activities you will be doing. Painting? Don’t hire a venue with carpet. Free play with younger children? A large echoey hall may be difficult for some. Appealing venues are those with a couple of rooms, a kitchen, indoor toilets and playground areas. Heating, cooling and outdoor shaded areas are important too.
Ideally you want ample parking close to the doors, especially if you will be bringing in equipment (and a few kids!). Public transport nearby may also be desirable, particularly in inner city locations.
Co-ops are often able to hire venues as community groups at discounted rates and HEN members can use HEN’s public liability insurance if required.
How often will your co-op meet?
Some people find weekly is fine, others feel weekly co- ops contribute to faster burnout, particularly if travelling.
Some families prefer a monthly co-op, though others believe this contributes to people being less interested and committed as time goes on. Fortnightly is another option. Some break for the school holidays, others continue. It all comes down to what works for your group.
Alternating venue days with excursion days and holidays
You might want to have a combination of venue and excursion days, for instance three venue-based weeks in a row and the fourth week is an excursion somewhere.
What age groups are you aiming to have in your co-op? If there are teens and much younger children, will you split them into groups or have everyone together as a multi-age group? Will you be strict on the age ranges, or flexible? While home education frequently involves a mix of ages all coming together, there are groups who do prefer to split by age range and there are kids who request this themselves.
Multi-age interaction is a common feature of home education so some groups like to add age groups to give kids something different – especially teenagers. It pays to be clear about what your group is.
Numbers of kids in the co-op
More may be merrier, but it may also be chaotic! Consider setting a maximum number of children. Many co-op organisers advise starting small with a fixed number of children. Group numbers may influence your ability to hire a temporary instructor.
Allergies, medical conditions and First Aid
You will need to work out how to deal with allergies and medical conditions of people in your co-op. If your co- op involves eating together for instance, will you have a policy in place requesting certain foods not be brought to co-op? Having a first aid kit is advisable.
Group ideology and approach
You may wish to establish early on the ‘kind’ of co-op you are setting up. Is it secular, faith-based, structured with sit-down activities or an unschooling meetup? Being clear about this upfront is beneficial. If you set your co- op up with a particular style, for instance a combination of structured activities for the first half of the session then free play for the second half, be clear about this with people who want to sign up. When a group isn’t to a person’s liking, they may complain and/or expect changes to be made. This can change the dynamics of a group. By all means adapt and change things if everyone is happy to try a different approach. However by being clear upfront and sticking to whatever you decide, you can offer gentle reminders that the co-op was established to be run a certain way and parents agreed to that when signing up. Consider individual needs and whether they can be accommodated, people can’t join a structured co-op and expect it to morph into an unschooling group to suit themselves. When people find a co-op doesn’t work for them, they may need to find another or start their own.
Working With Children Check (WWCC)
Some co-ops prefer that parents have a current WWCC. Legally, they are not required for volunteers involved in their own children’s activities but if you bring in an instructor, they should have one.
Will your group have a policy specific to additional needs? The home education community has many families with specific needs and there are groups that are designed to be supportive. You can encourage parents to chat to you about accommodations they would appreciate that could make things easier
for their children.
Behaviour Guidelines – Children
This is one of the more difficult aspects of any group where kids get together. There will always be incidents where the adults are required to facilitate conflict resolution. Families do things differently so responding to incidents and behaviour can create tension and, in worst case scenarios, lead to people leaving a group or a group breaking up.
There’s no perfect answer but establishing a policy may help limit difficult situations.
A very important consideration is the roles of the parents in the co-op. What exactly do you expect of parents? Some co-ops require all parents to take turns leading an activity or organising an event. Signup forms can make it clear if parents are required to contribute to the planning and running of the group.
Some parents may sign up with the intention of contributing, but circumstances for their families may make this harder to do in practice. Some children require their parent stay close to them, which can make it hard for that parent to run a simple activity. This can cause those parents to feel they are letting the group down or worry that others think they’re not pulling their weight. Are there other ways that such members can contribute?
Flexibility always helps as well as being respectful and compassionate. Consider mentioning this in your co- op’s general information as a way of supporting member families.
If your co-op will be one that requires parents to lead a session, it helps to have a roster. Some parents volunteering for a particular activity may need help. Preparing an activity can sometimes take more work than a parent anticipates, leading them to feel a little stressed and overwhelmed. You don’t want to take time away from a family’s own home education, including your own. It’s best to keep things simple, at least to begin with.
If your co-op will have planning meetings, get those dates established as quickly as possible to give everyone the best chance of attending. Decide how your meetings will facilitate input from all the members, including kids.
Behaviour Guidelines – Parents
As with any group of people, there’s potential for differences of opinion and subsequent actions and reactions. Some co-ops find written guidelines useful.
Will your group request that certain practices do or do not take place in the co-op? Will you have firm guidelines on how parents respond to others’ children– can a parent gently intervene in a situation involving another child, or should they immediately alert that child’s parent? Will you request that adults not swear, smoke or expect others to look after their kids?
What about topics considered controversial? Will you request that various topics or politics not be raised within the group? While this may be censorship, some groups insist on these rules based on past experience where such topics have been divisive and hurtful.
While one would hope that adults can just work something out – after all, they’re there for the kids – sadly this isn’t always the case. This is where behaviour guidelines for parents can come in handy.
Remember that a co-op is just one option. If you can find a co-op that your family loves, great. But they’re certainly not a must-have for your home education journey. Instead, you may wish to attend a group, individual activities or just get together with a few families occasionally. Different options and combinations will meet your needs at various stages. Tailor your home education to meet your child’s needs and be aware that a child who requires time to recover from bad school experiences may not be ready to join any group or activity.
Otherways 155 (2018)Last updated on