“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This, from W.B Yeats, seems more pertinent than ever at a time when the pandemic highlights the stark inequalities of our education system, causing us to question whether the current model is fit for purpose. For some, the pail is empty; for many, the fires have long been extinguished. The implications of this are severe.
The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate how we live and work – and how we educate. Whilst the detrimental effect on children’s education during lockdown is clearly evident, there are also those who have thrived outside the timetables and rigours of a classroom-based system.
The uncertainty and confusion surrounding how best to assess GCSEs and A-levels, how the one-size fits all approach no longer seems to fit at all, prompts the question that there must be another way. There is. Some schools have already found it: flexi-schooling.
Flexi-schooling is a legal form of full-time education, simply delivered in a different format. At the discretion of a headteacher, an agreement is reached with parents where children attend school for set days and, on the other days, they will be at home, learning in whatever way enriches them.
Hollinsclough Church of England Academy in Staffordshire was the first school to offer this approach in 2009. Now over 90 per cent of its pupils flexi-school. Tuesday to Thursday are its three core days, where attendance is required at school. It now advises many other schools on all matters flexi-schooling.
At Stroud Green Primary School in London, parents can agree to home educate one day per week, usually Friday. The school acknowledges that parents are not expected to deliver the curriculum, but for them, home education is seen as an outing to a park or museum or art activities.
This is key, as acknowledged on their website. “Flexi-schooling agreements with parents acknowledge that some children learn best if they have one day with their parents continuing and enriching their learning experiences.”
In essence, this means that children have time to take ownership and be active rather than passive in their learning. The current system requiring children to reach targets and tick boxes means that time is precisely what they don’t have.
No, you can’t do a deep dive into what fires your imagination about a story because you have to be able to identify a fronted adverbial or a subordinate clause which you will immediately forget after your test.
There is a Finnish saying that states, “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.” The Finns know what they are talking about, having topped the tables for both happiness and education in recent years.
One of the main reasons for this is their holistic approach, centred on the whole child. There is no ranking of schools or standardised tests and learning is highly individualised. Crucially, the school days are short with an emphasis on the balance of school life and free time.
Hobbies and other life interests are encouraged, although not in the over-scheduled competitive way they appear to be here. This feeds into life satisfaction and a work/life balance in adulthood, again something distinctly lacking in this country. However, flexi-schooling could be the answer to this.
Our obsession with grades and league tables is reducing our children to commodities. ‘What did you learn?’ has been replaced with ‘What did you achieve?’
Many capable children feel they don’t measure up and give up, let alone those who struggle. Our rigid system is churning out a generation of automatons. I recently spoke to someone involved in recruitment at a top City law firm. They find they are recruiting fewer Oxbridge graduates because, whilst they might be academically stellar on paper, the interpersonal skills needed in a team environment requiring innovative commercial solutions are increasingly lacking.
Look what has happened over the last year. To tackle a rapidly changing, uncertain future, we need a generation equipped with critical thinking skills, adaptability and creativity. We need the innovators and the dreamers, the collaborators and the wild cards. They are not necessarily formed within the classroom.
That spark could be ignited during an activity at home, a passion discovered if only time and space allowed. Flexi-schooling could offer this time and space.
In an article for govtech.com in 2020, Mark Siegel, headmaster at Delphian School, Oregon said, “We need to shift from a system where time is the constant and learning is the variable to one where learning is the constant and time is the variable.”
Flexi-schooling is not for everyone. It presents its own challenges, requiring careful collaboration between parents and teachers to ensure the curriculum is covered, but it may work for more people than the current system allows. As Nicolette Sowder, creator of Wilder Child says, “If we want our children to move mountains, we have to first let them get out of their chairs.”