Flexischooling already has a long history and huge further potential to transform schooling for many learners and families. It can also go further and help transform schooling itself.
Flexischooling, Personalisation and New Learning Systems
Flexischooling has been around in the UK from the late 1970s. But what is it? What does it mean? What could it be? CPE-PEN argues it has huge transformational potential to our learning system and that it should be recognised as a credible and viable option to families and learners. Flexischooling stands at the boundary between mainstream and alternative or home-based approaches to learning. As such there is the prospect to develop a dialogue between the two and a learning system fit for the 21st Century.
As one of the authentic educational freethinkers my late colleague CPE-PEN trustee/director and mentor Prof Roland Meighan is second to none. The idea of flexischooling came to his attention in the 1970s in two ways at once. Dr Meighan was researching home–based education in UK and found that home educating families were not necessarily opposed to schools. Those who were not wanted a flexible relationship with schools ‘getting the best of both worlds’. Some pioneers like Kate Oliver achieved a flexischooling arrangement with the local school and LEA in Warwickshire. At the same time Dr Meighan came across experiments in the USA with flexible learning arrangements called Independent Study Programmes or ISPs. It was, in effect, a version of flexischooling. Dr Meighan continued to explore the logistics of flexischooling and additionally held discussions with John Holt in 1984 on his last visit to England before his untimely death from cancer. The culmination of this thinking led to a book in 1988, Flexischooling – education for tomorrow starting yesterday published under the Education Now imprint (and still available at from Educational Heretics Press ).
At the same time Philip Toogood another of CPE-PEN’s late trustee/directors was at Hartland. He was invited by the Schumacher Society to co-ordinate a movement to become known as the Human Scale Education Association in 1985, culminating in a three-day international conference in Oxford attended by over 200. This explored the ideas of Minischooling and Flexischooling in a variety of settings including the ‘New York City as School’ and the need to protect small schools and the right to home education. Philip and his wife Annabel spent two years working at the Small School at Hartland. They were then asked in 1987 by parents to re-open the Dame Catherine’s School at Ticknall, Derbyshire, as an independent, parent-cooperative learning centre and all-ages, flexischool. The secondary section of Dame Catherine’s split off to become the East Midlands Flexicollege, a base for the development of flexi-schooling (perhaps the UK’s earliest example of a full flexischool) in Burton upon Trent. This was presented to the Blair government as a model for attachment to each secondary school in Burton but, in spite of initial encouragement to make the application and strong approval in the official published inspection, the request was refused.
Ever since these early days CPE-PEN has received numerous enquiries every month about the availability of flexischooling and how to go about it. The broadsheet newspapers have featured flexischooling at least twice a year and usually very positively. Unfortunately, they have not really followed up and developed the narrative on the potential implications of flexischooling. They have also, sadly been prone to stereotype flexischooling families as quirky, wealthy, middle-class, part-time, home-based educators. These myths are quickly extinguished if one follows the flexischooling Facebook groups…
We have heard about and supported various flexischooling ventures around the country and fielded many queries from headteachers and governors. In terms of government guidance… there is little, and this has always hindered the development of the ideas. Failure to address real practical issues, legal responsibilities, funding, registration etc has made things messy for schools, families and local authorities and difficult for those not prepared to go the extra mile.
Matters have been worsened by a lack of understanding of flexischooling. It is not, as portrayed a fixed concept – rather it is a continuum. At its simplest a transaction of shared time between home-based learning and school learning. More radically it can offer challenge across all dimensions of schooling including notions of curriculum, learning and teaching.
Despite these issues, over recent years there does appear to be a growth in flexischooling in all its guises. Mainstream schools like Hollinsclough CE Primary in the North Staffordshire Moorlands (Headteacher: Janette Mountford-Lees) http://www.hollinsclough.staffs.sch.uk/Flexi.htm and Erpingham CE Primary in Norfolk (Headteacher: Simon East) http://www.erpinghamprimaryschool.co.uk/ have both had extensive media coverage. Clusters of schools in various local authorities are known, as are isolated examples across the country. There are non-mainstream flexischools like the Manara Academy in Leicester (Principal: Fatima D’Oyen) www.manara-education.co.uk. There are also settings offering different types of flexitime experiences split between mainstream school and some form of alternative learning centre; then again between home-based learning and a learning centre Self Managed Learning College (Prof Ian Cunningham). http://www.college.selfmanagedlearning.org/, The Stables Project, York (Linda Fryer) http://www.thestablesproject.co.uk/ . The permutations are endless.
Are these indications of a shift from the ad hoc to a growing trend… the tip of an iceberg? The truth is we do not know. It certainly feels like it. The interest generated by the CfBT Flexischooling Conference in 2011 was indicative of something stirring. http://tinyurl.com/7u28k3u The more we look into the current state of flexischooling the more we find going on.
What is most exciting is the potential we have to harness and network families, learners and flexi-settings. There is an urgent need to develop ideas and practices that can build on the real requirements of learners, on what we know about learning and the development of sustainable families and society. Fleshing out the possibilities offers the chance to develop diversity and choice in the learning landscape and achievement for our young people.
Meeting Learner Needs
Flexischooling potentially has widespread application for learners and families. Every youngster has the right to expect their needs to be accommodated if their learning is to flourish and if they are to respond to life-long contributions and responsibilities to society. A number of learner groups have particular problems in the current systems. They are typically those at the ends of the achievement spectrum for whom the age-stage, paced and progressed curriculum and assessment is far too rigid and inflexible. They find themselves as ‘square pegs in round holes’. Those on the autistic spectrum or those who are exceptionally gifted are particularly ill-served. Flexischooling arrangements can provide a framework for them to thrive, meeting both their specific learning requisites and their social needs. (See Clare Lawrence’s article on Flexischooling and autism in this journal and her book Autism and Flexischooling, A Shared Classroom and Homeschooling Approach, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, priced £14.99
Small schools naturally find flexischooling can offer a particular lifeline to sustainability. It is already apparent that flexischoolers are prepared to travel astonishing distances to access flexi-education with settings they can trust and work in partnership with. Additionally, attracting flexischoolers can be crucial in maintaining the fabric of a locality. This is specifically important in small rural communities where decline can be hastened without the local school.
Further, flexischools offer real engagement with the elective home education communities. Ironically, where there is a flexischooling arrangement both government and local authority may be assured that they are in contact with home-based educators and less inclined to pursue ill-thought out schemes and overbearing policing of this community.
The Flexischooling Continuum
As I have already suggested flexischooling (like personalisation) sits along a continuum. At its shallow end and simplest it is a basic flexitime arrangement where the school-based and home-based learning are discrete and continue as ‘normal’. The mainstream system has traditionally accommodated this to some extent with nursery/early years provision. There are also examples of some secondary phase schools who offer flexitime contracts with various students who earn the right to study away from school for periods.
In the USA flexible week arrangements in Independent Study Programmes (ISPs) use specially trained staff who negotiate timetables with families. So, even at this superficial end of the continuum the concept begins to question some basic assumptions of schooling, accepting…
- a single location is not essential
- parents can have an active role
- children / young people can learn without teachers being present
- facilitating learning is as much part of teaching as formal instruction
- resources at home/elsewhere both physical and virtual can be utilised
- uniqueness of individuals / individual learning styles can be respected and accommodated
At the radical and more transformational end of the spectrum deep flexischooling goes further in confronting notions about schooling and its view of learning. As such, it has very strong links to deep personalisation (as opposed to the government’s weaker version of personalisation described as ‘tailoring’). Deep flexischooling like deep personalisation recognises the rapidly changing world, the ubiquitous availability and ease of knowledge access, the complexities of life and behaviour. It recognises rigid people do not cope, flexible people have a better chance. Behaviour in the modern world is so complex. Sometimes we need authoritarian behaviour (knowing when to take orders/give them), sometimes times we need self- managing skills of autonomous behaviours and at yet at other times the cooperative skills of democratic behaviour. The world is multidimensional whilst our schools for the most part are unidimensional offering predominantly authoritarian experiences.
Flexibility in all dimensions then, is the key – for example the idea of curriculum. Schooling takes curriculum for granted as the National Curriculum with its pre-ordained age-stage progressions and assessments. Yet it is, in reality, just one curriculum offer. It is in effect part of a wider Catalogue Curriculum available from variety of countries and organisations across the globe. Additionally, there is of course a Natural Curriculum which is the learning chosen by self-managed and autonomous learners. It may or may not include elements from the Catalogue. Radical flexischools can begin to explore these dimensions by supporting the learners in their navigation through curricular options and progressions. Rather than the predictable current 4-19 Pathways learners can identify much more flexible learning episodes and journeys at a pace and timescale dictated by their own needs.
In Dr Meighan’s conversations with John Holt, John re-iterated his proposal that schools could be invitational rather than based on conscription (likened to ‘day prison’).
Why not make schools into places where children would be allowed, encouraged, and when asked, helped to make sense of the world around them in ways that interested them?
Since I’ve been on with this flexi-thing, I’ve come across loads of parents that can see how it could benefit their child’s learning. (Parent)
Links to pages in this Flexischooling Menu