Niamh, aged six and a half, is in our garden at home, looking inside our chickens' nesting box for eggs. Afterwards, she goes in to read her picture encyclopaedia, occasionally pausing to tell me something new or to ask a question. It's a Thursday in term time, but she's not at school. Nor does she attend on Tuesday or Friday afternoons, although she's a registered school pupil. Niamh isn't truanting – she's flexi-schooling. Education shared between home and school is a legal option for any schoolchild, if the head teacher agrees.
The exact number of flexi-pupils in this country is unknown, but there are thought to be about 400, mainly in primary schools, and numbers are slowly growing. Some parents, like me, want a compromise between full-time home-educating and full-time school. At first, I considered home education for Niamh: I wanted her to be able to learn informally, to have plenty of freedom and to spend time with her family. As a former primary teacher, I was confident about facilitating her education, but I wasn't convinced I had the time and energy to commit to it fully, and I knew Niamh would benefit from regular contact with other children her age. Researching alternatives led me to "Free Range Education", a collection of essays, one on part-time schooling. This offered the solution.
Some parents have different reasons for flexi-schooling. Children recovering from a long illness may need to get back into the school routine gradually, or children who were fully home-educated may try flexi-schooling before going full-time. Ruth Owens, from Lancashire, home-educated her daughter Amelia between the ages of five and seven, but, when family circumstances changed, Ruth enrolled Amelia at school – part-time at first. Four months later, Amelia went full-time. Ruth praises the school, which went out of its way to help. "They were fantastic," she says. "Although they'd never heard of flexi-schooling before, they were very accommodating."
Many schools are unaware that flexi-schooling is an option. They often don't hear about it unless parents request it, and are then hesitant to agree. One common misconception is that local authorities will disapprove, although they have no power to decide – it is the head teacher's decision. There can be concern that the school's global absence scores will suffer, but if the child is registered as "educated offsite" rather than absent, for home-based sessions, this will not be an issue. Another worry is the absence of flexi-pupils during SATs, although parents normally agree to suspend the part-time arrangement while they are on, letting children sit them. In most cases, though, schools are doubtful simply because the arrangement is unusual and outside most teachers' experience.
I am fortunate in that the school I approached (a mainstream state primary) was happy to try flexi-schooling. A new head teacher started at the beginning of Niamh's second term, and a new Key Stage 1 teacher arrived last September: both are happy with the arrangement and pleased for it to continue. I feel it helps that the school is small – with fewer than 40 pupils in total – as this makes it easier to cater for individuals.
People often express surprise that flexi-schooling is legal: "Don't children have to go to school full-time?", they ask. The answer is, no. Although full-time education is compulsory, full-time schooling is not. School hours and home-learning sessions add up to a full-time week. I'm also asked whether flexi-schooling is inconvenient for teachers and pupils: won't flexi-children miss out on things and need extra help given to them? This hasn't happened with Niamh. Most academic subjects are covered in the mornings, and her timetable means she is present four mornings a week. Although I don't often teach formal lessons on non-school days, and there is no obligation to follow the National Curriculum at home, I try to fit in with school topics as much as I can. We also play word games, go on outings, talk about anything and everything and read to each other. Niamh's newest project is helping her dad to plan a playhouse, which will involve practical maths and technology.
All this sounds slightly haphazard, but it really works. I keep a diary, recording all I've done at home with Niamh. After reading my account of our activities, it's clear a lot of teaching and learning has gone on amid the fun. Niamh's teacher has access to the diary, and is pleased with the progress she's making and the work she does in and out of school.
Though some schools remain uncertain about, or even unaware of, flexi-schooling, it is becoming better known. More parents now would like part-time schooling to be an option, especially would-be home educators who can't manage to be with their children full-time. Heroes Alternative School in Berkshire, (www.heroesberkshire.co.uk) exists solely for part-timers. Open four days a week, it offers a broad range of subjects and activities to children from eight to 16, including history, dance, art and craft, English, maths, science and drama. Students can attend as little as one day per week, and accredited courses, including IGCSEs, can be followed.
Most important, do children benefit from flexi-schooling? Kate Oliver, who flexi-schooled her son and daughter, (now grown-up) during the 1990s, believes they do. She says: "My children's education was broader than it would have been, with school balanced by less conventional activities – bell-ringing, soap-making, visiting a boat-building yard and doing an early milk round. They were avid book-lovers, and loved listening to the radio and just discussing things. They developed confidence and good life skills."
From my perspective, the flexi-arrangement suits Niamh's needs. She gets one-to-one attention, the chance to find things out for herself, and freedom to let off steam when she needs to. This is complemented by time at school, mixing and learning with other children – valuable experience as she's an only child. She is more than happy with the arrangement: while enjoying school, she likes time with me, and realises more time at school would mean less at home. In the future, she may want to go to school full-time: if so, I won't stop her. For now, though, we have the best of both worlds.