The O’Connor Cooperative School has a unique name in public education in Australia. Why is it a Cooperative School? Unique as the name may be now, the school’s name and its early history reflected educational change of the 1970s and 1980s. “Cooperative” harks back to ideas associated with schools of the period that were identified as progressive or alternative. It meant too, that the school was a parent-teacher cooperative.
The school was part of the progressive schools movement across Australia during the 1970s and 1980s. The child-centred education revolution was happening simultaneously in Europe and the USA. Of the three progressive schools in the ACT in the 1970s and 1980s (the public School Without Walls- SWOW - for high school children and the private school Association of Modern Education- AME) only the O’Connor Cooperative School has survived.
In 1975, a group of parents lobbied the ACT Schools Authority for a progressive early childhood school. For two years in 1976 to 1977, a parent cooperative maintained a small school for children from three to eight years of age, called the Neighbourhood Children’s Centre, in the grounds of the ANU. It then became part of the ACT public school system and became the O’Connor Cooperative School in 1978.
Child-centred education was the educational driver of this experiment, as were children’s needs, experiential and relatively unstructured learning, participatory parent and teacher decision-making. All made for a dynamic environment for the children and adults. For the children, though, there was freedom to learn, to be with committed teachers and parents and the freedom to experience a variety of learning situations with lots of play and encouragement. There were programs for competency, for confidence building and for caring! The 3 Cs not the 3 Rs.
Many of the activities reflected what was beginning to happen in preschools in Australia. There were parent science programs, walking programs, cooking programs and music and dance programs. Regular Community Meetings discussed every matter of concerned parents and teachers.
Early in its history in the ACT Schools Authority, issues of parental involvement, the selection of a committed staffing team, the increased formalisation of curriculum to meet children’s needs were matters of discussion and resolution. In time, the school’s character has changed. It became part of the ACT public education system and although there is a remarkable parental involvement, it is not a collective. However, the emphasis on the critical importance of early childhood education continues to be, over 40 years later, central to the ongoing values and vision of the school.