Hurstbridge Learning Co-op, Hurstbridge, Melbourne

Apart from a few new buildings and some beautiful new landscaping, it felt as though The Hurstbridge Learning Co-op that we saw this morning, stood as it was back in 1973, when it was established. So far, the schools we’ve visited have all come from similar places, having started 30-40 years ago as radical learning spaces but over time, becoming less so through their evolution. Either seeking more government funding, board of studies approval or greater enrolments they let go of some of the things that made them very different to the primary public school model we are all too familiar with.

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The front playground

Entering the main space, a 40 year old square, timber room, with big glass windows, a circle of sofas and a wood fired stove, Hurstbridge seemed to be a very lean machine. “We run off the smell of an oily rag” says Liz, one of the two ‘Coordinators’, while we talk about how the school achieves its government funding. “We get all our money from the government” she says. “But its the parents volunteering that keeps the fees so low. We work ‘em hard” she laughs. And with an independent school such as this, earning 25% of the funding that the local public primary school earns, its the parents involvement that makes Hurstbridge a great example of alternative education.

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tea?

There are 20 kids enrolled at the school at the moment, 30 being the maximum capacity, and its the first day back after the Easter Holidays. Morning meeting at 09:30 involves all 20 kids getting a turn to talk about how their holidays were. There are 5 or 6 parents present as well, one or two of which are rostered on for the morning to give their half a day a week volunteering as teachers aides. In this role they’re required to assist students in the regular morning literacy/numeracy activities and then, if they feel inclined, lead a small, self-initiated project with any students who wish to be involved.

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This commitment and communal approach (much like the challenges of an intentional community) is something that prospective students and parents are helped to understand, prior to enrolment, through a 6 month trial period at the school. Compulsory fortnightly Monday evening meetings are held for parents and Coordinators to discuss what’s happening and rosters etc., the one rule being that  only those children of parents that are present are discussed. At the start of each term there’s a three way conversation between coordinator, student and parent about interests and desired outcomes for the term. This is then compiled into a list that is taken to the fortnightly Monday meetings so parents can develop their ideas about what activities they might want to lead, these are also based on their skills and interests.

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one man band

The regular morning literacy/numeracy activity is referred to as focus time and goes for about 30-45 mins after morning meeting everyday. This is a recent addition to the daily routine approximately 2 years ago, making a concrete commitment to teaching literacy and numeracy. It is the only compulsory ‘class’ that the students need to attend and be seen to produce work from. From this work, the coordinators Perry and Liz are able to monitor each students development and help build in areas of need. After focus time, students are encouraged and guided to do what ever they want to do, ‘so much of the curriculum’, says Perry ‘is covered in the free play’.

This introduction of structure led to a number of strong, dominating families leaving the school, families that were adamantly against their children having to attend such a class. These families had formed a negative faction in the school and since their departure, Liz and Perry feel they are enjoying an harmonious group at the moment.

Perry joined Hurstbridge just under 2 years ago, leaving a post as principle at a local public primary school. The insight she brings from the state system regarding curriculum, student needs, funding, accreditation, policies and teaching is very valuable to the operation at Hurstbridge. Her comments on the topic of restrictions to student playground playtime at a state school seemed hilarious as we watched children running all around us in complete freedom. Liz estimated that a huge proportion of their workload is in the need to write and keep updated endless numbers of policies and procedures.

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Each day a small group of students is given the responsibility to make a photographic record of the days outcomes. We were photographed making 3 dimensional paper cakes for a make believe birthday party with a 5 year old Mila. Other activities going on that morning included the construction of an elaborate cardboard dolls house, a dolls clothing range being cut and hand sewed, a research activity led by Ruth one of the parents around communication methods prior to cellular technology, music being thrashed out on drums, xylophones and guitars, face painting, creative writing. Photographs were taken, files uploaded to the computer and a selection printed off. These are then pasted into the daily observation book to keep a record.

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Hurstbridge learning Co-op wowed us. When we first began dreaming up models of radical alternative education this model is very similar to where we started. The Liz and Perry dream team were a delight to meet and observe in action. 2 very different woman rich in life experience, skills and passion for what they do. Hurstbridge isn’t a school for everyone as one parent expressed, the work load is high and the politics some times exhausting but its real life.

Of all the schools that we’ve visited so far Hurstbridge definitely stands out as something very different. We met so many parents very eager to welcome us and share with us and both Liz and Perry were always available to chat and answer our questions. The school’s grounds were absolutely beautiful, enchanting and diverse. I really loved what this school was about and despite the past few years being full of transition and change for the school from the outside it appeared very sure of itself and its purpose.

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