'Flexitime' school that rewrites the book on teaching

Michael Gove has put all his faith in academies – but there is an alternative
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The Independent Online

Education Secretary Michael Gove was yesterday busy spelling out his vision of tough targets and better test results to improve the performance of state schoolchildren.

Today an entirely different vision will be spelt out at a top level conference in London.

Welcome to the world of flexitime schooling which will see a child in Spain educated through Skype from the UK and a mother who splits her son's education between home teaching and school.

Hollinsclough Church of England primary school in Staffordshire is the first in the UK to introduce a part-time policy for pupils.

The school's approach, which will be explained by its headteacher Janette Mountford-Lees to a conference organised by education consultancy CfBT, aims to jointly address the issue of families who want a less rigid school timetable and the low number of children in the school's rural catchment area.

Mrs Mountford-Lees will show how it works at the conference, due to be attended by officials from the Department for Education in a bid to encourage other schools to adopt a similar practice.

When she first arrived as headteacher in 2008, Hollinsclough was – like many other rural village primary schools – struggling to survive. There were only five children on the roll and it was in danger of being closed.

"Then one day a mother came in and said could she send her child here for just two days a week," she said. "I couldn't see why not."

She checked the legal position and there was nothing to stop her enrolling part-time pupils – all they had to do was to come in once every 10 days as a minimum.

Now she has 11 full-time pupils, 10 part-timers and as many as 15 to 20 families coming in to join the school's learning "hub" – which arranges events such as simulations of archaeological digs and arts activities for children.

The school's motto is to provide what the parents want for their children, said Mrs Mountford-Lees. "I recently asked them what they would most like and some of them said for their children to learn Latin." She is now trying to arrange for a private tutor to come in and provide the classes.

Home educators also say it is difficult to arrange for their children to sit exams such as GCSEs when they reach secondary school age because they have to be attached to a school or learning centre to sit the exam.

Hollinsclough, despite being a primary school, is considering erecting a sort of conservatory made out of hay bails – so it does not resemble a formal school to youngsters who have been put off mainstream education – where they can take their exams. It could therefore become the first primary school to be registered as a GCSE examination centre.

As for the Spanish family, at present they are arranging to provide lessons via the telephone – but hope to set up a skype communication to make it easier.

Bina Widdowson, who brings her four-year-old to the learning "hub" and is one of those seeking Latin lessons, said: "What is going on here is something special. It's not just a willingness to accept people part-time, it is a willingness to employ a different philosophy of life. They treat children as human beings, not just as someone who has to perform so the school can do well in league tables. There is a love of children here."

Mrs Widdowson will be accompanying Mrs Mountford-Lees to today's conference to give her support. Sue Middleton, whose six-year-old son Russell is home-schooled but travels from Sutton Coldfield to Hollinsclough two days a week for art and science lessons, is full of praise for the school, too. "It is well worth the one-and-a-half hour's drive each day to get to Hollinsclough," she said. "None of us (parents) are good at everything and I welcome Hollinsclough providing a lot of our son's art and science education just as I'm sure other parents may appreciate input on music and French."

Since it became a flexitime school, Hollinsclough has attracted interest from all over the world – including Spain, Australia and the United States.

The school arranges classes in different subject areas on the same day each week so pupils who come in for particular lessons do not fall behind the school's full-time pupils.

The full-timers and part-timers appear to mix well, too. As Mrs Mountford-Lees puts it: "If you play with your cousins on a Friday, you don't expect to have to play with them all the rest of the days of the week, too."