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Flexi Schooling and Unschooling

Flexi Schooling
By Katrin Bain

For two days a week, a life learning child attends a democratic school that supports self-directed adventures.

Thursday morning, 8:30 am. Shoes on, coats on, rucksack, scooter, spare clothes for all weather, and a lunch box. We are finally ready to leave the house. I know we won’t make it on time and the London commuter traffic leaves no hope for making up any time on the way. And, given that it is the second day this week we make the journey, we all feel a bit tired. In fact, my six-year-old son would have loved to stay in bed half an hour longer to read books. This would not be a problem on a home education day but today is a school day. At 9:10 am, we finally arrive at the school gate where he is greeted by teachers and friends.

“We want our children to play, to experiment, to find their passion, to make friends, to be free, to be wild, and to have time. That is probably the most important thing: To have time. Free time. Time to play.”
After eighteen months of home education, we started flexi schooling this year. And despite the early mornings and commuter traffic, it has enriched our lives and his education in ways that would not have happened at home. But let’s start at the beginning.

Like a lot of parents, my husband and I want the best education for our children. Actually it is more than that: We want them to have the best life possible. For us this means giving them age-appropriate independence, supporting them when they need help or questions answered, and offering cuddles and a stable and secure home and a stimulating environment. We are doing our best to be what author and psychologist Peter Gray calls trustful parents:

“Trustful parents trust their children to play and explore on their own, to make their own decisions, to take risks, and to learn from their own mistakes. Trustful parents do not measure or try to direct their children’s development, because they trust children to do so on their own. Trustful parents are not negligent parents. They provide not just freedom, but also the sustenance, love, respect, moral examples, and environmental conditions required for healthy development. They support, rather than try to direct, children’s development, by helping children achieve their own goals when such help is requested.” (Free to Learn, Basic Books, 2013, p. 210)

We want our children to play, to experiment, to find their passion, to make friends, to be free, to be wild, and to have time. That is probably the most important thing: To have time. Free time. Time to play.

     

We were lucky that we have a great local nursery that offers the children this freedom in a stimulating environment with a big garden and three free-flow rooms where children can choose an activity, and staff who are there to support them when needed rather than to direct. My son started shortly after his third birthday and spent his first term in the big sandpit in the garden. He later joined the weekly forest school sessions and spent hours in imaginative pretend play with his best friend. He liked going to nursery. It widened his worldview. The staff was on hand to share his interests and supported self-directed learning. And the fifteen hours a week he spent there did not interfere with our family life. It was ideal for us.

After that, we visited many schools but could not find another setting that:
- supported self-directed learning
- exposed the children to a wide range of resources and personalities
- did not interfere with family life too much.

As a result, our home education journey started a few months before our son turned five. Our daughter was two-and-a-half years old at the time and very happy to have her brother around full-time.

I find “home education” a slightly misleading term. I prefer the term “life learning,” as we essentially continued what had started at birth: offering age-appropriate freedom and independence in a stimulating environment. We went to groups, museums, the beach, the zoo, parks, and playgrounds. We had a great time. Of course there was the occasional wobble of wondering whether my son would learn what he needed to. Some days, it felt too much to be solely responsible for the education of our children. Stepping outside the system requires a lot of trust, especially given that most people around us opted for mainstream schooling. I tried to calm this fear by buying workbooks that my son would ignore but my daughter found interesting. Overall, we had a great time together and my son picked up how to read, write, and count along the way.

Around my son’s sixth birthday, some downsides of home education surfaced. I found it impossible to give my son unobserved time to have little adventures and discoveries alone or with friends. We have a tiny garden and where we live children of his age do not play outside on their own. It took a lot of my time and energy trying to organize and travel to home education groups or meetings with other families. This lack of freedom caused tension between him and me. I started to wish for a part-time, drop-off option.

A month later, we found Small Acres, a small, independent school not too far from us. Small Acres is based in an adventure playground and the children have the freedom to play and learn in an age-mixed setting without lessons. Every child at Small Acres starts with a two-week trial period. I knew on the first day that we had come to the right place. The relaxed smile on my children’s faces told me. I was allowed to stay as much or as little in the school as I considered necessary to settle my son. This allowed me not only to be there for him but also to get to know the school better.

The school day starts with a morning meeting where everyone – children and adults – say what their plans for the day are, and if they would like for others to join in. It is also the time to talk about any problems. Everyone has a voice and decisions are made as a group.

On our second day, one boy said his plan for the day was to hunt birds. Not surprisingly, this caused a discussion about bird hunting, as many were against it. What we also learned in the process was that a group of children – including my son – had tried to catch birds the day before. Now, I am totally against bird hunting but I loved the fact that we had finally found a place where my son could have those adventures. Fortunately the hunt was not successful and no birds were harmed. The children did, however, learn a lot about birds, cultures where children their age would go bird hunting for food, different ways to (not) catch a bird, and about working together as a team.

At this meeting, my son was still very shy and would not participate. Since then, he has gone from not saying anything during the morning meeting to chairing it.

“I thought education was divided according to where you educate your child. I have since realized that it is the how that divides people.”

After the two week trial period, we joined the school for two days a week. This leaves us three weekdays and the weekend to do other things. That sounds like a lot of time, but we do feel those missing two days. We also continued with weekly music lessons with another home educated boy. The teacher is very child-centered and happy to use any medium that engages the children. In the past, my son has, for example, played electric guitar and clarinet, and been to a recording studio. He also still meets his best friend from nursery and other local children after school. We build with LEGO and read books. We use the opportunities around us to learn and explore. Small Acres is one of those opportunities around us that fits seamlessly into our education philosophy. What we do at home and what my son experiences at Small Acres share the same beliefs and values.

I thought education was divided according to where you educate your child. I have since realized that it is the “how” that divides people. When we started home education, I naively assumed that everyone was choosing it for the same reasons that we did. I quickly realized that this was not the case. Some families are very structured and replicate school at home, others use a Steiner curriculum, still others unschool, or home educate for religious reasons. Flexi schooling has not changed how I feel about education. I also do not feel less responsible for my son’s education than if he was at home all week.

Is flexi schooling the best of both worlds? For us at the moment it is. It not only gives my son the freedom away from me that he needs, it also gives me one-on-one time with my daughter. This has really helped her to focus on what she wants to do rather than looking to her big brother for guidance. She also has more play dates with her friends, which is great.

Do I think flexi schooling is the best of both worlds for everyone? Absolutely not. To start off, not everyone wishes to experience both worlds. Many are happy with full-time school or full-time home education. Flexi schooling can, however, be a good option for those families who want either the childcare element or educational element of schools. If you need childcare part of the week, flexi schooling could give you the hours you need. Flexi schooling agreements need to be arranged with the school and it depends on their discretion to agree to it or not. If you require advice and support there are groups on Facebook specifically for flexi schoolers.

Or, like us, you might want to add school to complement the education you offer at home. In this case, it is important to match the school’s educational philosophy with your own to ensure that flexi schooling gives you the educational elements you are hoping for.

And finally, flexi schooling only works if the child enjoys going to school. Getting us all out of the house on school mornings against the resistance of my son would not make the experience worthwhile. But as he is happily going, we will be packing the lunch, rucksack, scooter, and change of clothes for all weather again on Wednesday for another day at school.

Katrin Bain is the author of the PocketRescue parenting booklet series. She guides parents to confidently parent from the inside out and offers them the tools to build strong relationships with their children. She lives in London, England with her husband and their two children. For more articles, visit her blog: www.katrinbain.info.

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