The “Good And Bad” Of It
Covens and schools of witchcraft are very simply, a group of people that work together for magickal and ritual purposes.
It is entirely possible that you could practice as a “solitary” Witch your entire life (and maybe doing some rituals with close friends once in awhile). In fact, most Witches throughout the world ARE solitary practitioners, and never join a coven or other witchcraft school.
Even though you can be just as successful as a solitary, sometimes Covens and schools can help. You may be the type of person that likes to do things in groups, and actually, sometimes it is easier to raise energy of a group all with the same focus.
Also, celebrating the Sabbats is a lot more fun with a group or Coven.
There are four basic coven structures: Groups, Schools, Groves, and Covens.
The first, and most non-structured type of coven simply calls itself a group. It can vary in function from a group that gets together on semi-regular intervals to do magick, to a group that mainly functions in other ways such as the kids play group that a friend of mine joined that also had kid centered rituals on every Sabbat, and threw great parties as a side benefit. Groups generally do not have initiations; they do not give out degrees, and they do not have High Priests or Priestesses although people may step into those roles for a particular ritual. Groups can also be large groups, open to the public, that do award degrees. Very often, the large groups will have a small number of core members in an inner circle that hold private coven meetings. Joining a group does not prevent you from joining other groups, groves, witchcraft schools, or covens.
The second type is a grove, which has some of the features of a group and some of a coven. There is generally a leader and there may be initiations into the group, but the group itself does not award degrees. Groves are usually started when somebody who has a second degree wants to start his or her own group, but this is not always the case. Many Faeri groups only have one degree, and this is handed out sparingly. Alexandrians can start covens when they have their second degree. Sometimes a person who has come from a coven with a rigid structure and wants a group with a looser hierarchy starts a grove. Most groves do not prevent you from joining other groups, groves, or covens.
The next is the Coven. Covens, as a general rule, have the most rigid hierarchy. There is generally a High Priest (HP) and High Priestess (HPS), although members of the group may switch off in this role at times varying from every ceremony to every year. The same goes for witchcraft schools (which are not all that different from covens sometimes) Some covens have a permanent HP and HPS. If the group is large enough, it may have initiates, dedicates, and acolytes. One prominent exception to this is the Dianetic coven, which is based on consensus and equality, and oriented almost exclusively to the Goddess. Much of the hierarchy and practice depends on the sect of the HPS, although I do know of one coven that was run for several years by a Feri HPS with a strongly shamanic bent. There was another third degree in the coven who was a strong Alexandrian with a ceremonial magick viewpoint. The two of them switched off rituals for several years although there was a frequent butting of heads. This was unusual as in most covens there is only one third degree, and the HPS usually determines the direction of the group.