Education: Part-time schooling: dream or reality?

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Is a 10-year sentence of six-hour school days really the best way to encourage a child to love learning? Advocates of `flexi-schooling' say part-time education is faster, cheaper, and more effective in combating truancy. Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer considers what some educationists say is the inevitable way forward.

As the winter term gets into gear, many children are already wishing it was half-term or wondering why they are made to go to school at all. Part-time and flexi-schooling may feature in some students' dreams, but for most the idea is so far-fetched they do not even fantasise about it.

It does not seem to be on the Government's agenda either, for its top priority is reducing truancy and underachievement - increasing school attendance, not reducing it. Yet many educational crystal ball-gazers believe flexibility is the inevitable way of the future, and even the route to tempt the disaffected back into learning.

The push is coming from several directions, blurring the traditional left-right divide. Part-time schooling is judged by advocates to be an inevitable next step given advances in information technology, pressures on central and local public spending, future manpower needs and the questionable success of the present system.

The potential impact of computers has been well considered. David Hargreaves, professor of education at Cambridge University, believes that specialist schools with well-developed IT will encourage home study - and set a precedent.

"Once schools start to do that, they will have breached the psychological barrier that school is whole time or nothing," he says. "Young people today need to develop an entrepreneurial approach to work."

Working from home, perhaps alongside parents who are doing the same, will encourage this. Roland Meighan, special professor of education at Nottingham University, says computer-based learning is quicker. The GCSE maths syllabus, for example, can be covered in a quarter of the time using CD-Roms. "If we can make learning that efficient, what are we going to do with the rest of the time?"

The economic case for part-time and flexi-schooling is less familiar in the United Kingdom than in the United States. According to Don Glines of the California-based Educational Futures Project, 41 US states now have some public schools open at least 12 hours a day, 48 weeks a year, largely to avoid new building and save money.

Learning takes place in one of two different shift models. In one, the regulatory annual 180 days, six hours a day of school attendance is achieved for a larger enrolment through a quarter of students being on holiday at any one time. Each group comes in for 60 days, then takes 20 days' holiday, and repeats the pattern during a 48-week year. Those "on vacation" can continue to attend classes if they want to, giving them significant ability to come and go between the hours of 9am and 3pm during the school year.

The other model is two student shifts a day. Each shift attends for the requisite six hours over a 12-hour day, a system that also meets the needs of parents with irregular work patterns. Yet other schools, bowing more to social need than economic necessity, open their doors for up to 14 hours a day - despite restricting formal education to the traditional six hours. The rest of the time the schools offer food, play facilities, after-school clubs and, increasingly, extra tuition to help disadvantaged children catch up. With underachievement and social exclusion a major concern in America, too, this is a common development.

On the fringes of these changes are the so-called "Charter", and private "alternative", schools. Charter schools, which have spread over the past seven years to 39 states, are state or district-approved and funded centres for "at risk" kids which can ignore the usual legal requirements, like the government's proposed education action zones. They have been sanctioned to encourage innovation. Created through parental initiative, they tend to be both small (average 200 pupils) and located in less deprived areas.

Both Charter and private schools can and do offer true flexi-learning: flexible programmes in which the curriculum is individualised and student- directed. The personal learning packages that are negotiated between child, parent and teacher may include periods of home study. This is much closer to the ideal sought by certain education radicals in Britain.

Philip Toogood, Head of the East Midlands Flexi-College for eight- to 17-year-olds in a deprived area in Burton-on-Trent, is one of these. Believing that students must experience flexibility and time management in their learning if they are to flourish in the future, he sees education as a process of personal change and transformation.

His 23 students - all of whom have had unhappy experiences elsewhere - have personal learning plans, and most have some opportunity for organised home study, which they particularly value. "Children are fascinated by the control they gain over their own time," he says.

Mr Toogood also emphasises the social context of learning. "Our school is a reflective agent within our lives, providing vital stability and continuity," he says. The school is open long hours to match parents' timetables, and children help with the chores. Parents who are able to pay are charged pounds 850 a year. The college is hoping to become a foundation school in the Government's new system, forming a federation with other like-minded schools in the region.

Self-directed learning is also important to home-educating families, who are increasingly approaching schools for flexible support across the country. St Paul's in Birmingham is a school with a radical history. Being true to its communitarian philosophy but with an eye also on budgets and economics, it is now talking with local home-educating parents about whether and how it can help them as they help themselves. In law, no school is obliged to accommodate flexi-time, but it can if it wishes. Interestingly, this is a service Mr Toogood has recently stopped. His flexible and negotiated curriculum proved unsuitable for home-schooling families who wanted to tap into set lessons at set times.

A prominent educationalist who advocates part-time schooling for all children is Sir Christopher Ball, director of learning at the Royal Society of Arts. His case for change is that the current system is expensive and does not work. It neither guarantees functional literacy and numeracy, nor does it create a thirst, or leave any resources, for life-long learning.

Sir Christopher sees optional part-time schooling - giving children and their parents more say in what, when and how they learn, thus rekindling parental responsibility for education - as a step that will not entail high risks given present failures; and he believes children prefer it. Resources should be shifted from providers to learners through vouchers. "The present system is standing in the way of good sense," he argues. "It is bizarre to think we can continue in the same vein.

"New learning technologies mean we have no need to herd children together in classrooms. New understanding about how the brain functions will force us to rethink what we think we know about learning. We are trembling on the edge of a whole set of new information that will challenge the world. We are witnessing the last days of a 19th-century education system."

A US government report on time and learning, Prisoners of Time, came to the same conclusion in 1994. "The six-hour, 180-day school year should be relegated to the museums, an exhibit from our educational past," it said. Giving children a role in their own learning and changing the culture of schools, as Mr Glines advocates, "from compulsory uniformity to invitational variety" are sizeable challenges that politicians who wrestle with poor motivation and underachievement cannot afford to ignore.

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer is author of `Motivating Your Child', to be published in March by Vermilion.