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17th January 2003 at 00:00
Officially sanctioned part-time schooling may seem to sit uneasily with truancy sweeps and non-attendance fines. Yet that is how the flexi-schooling movement works

Jasper Kearney and Owain Astles don't go to school on Mondays or Tuesdays. The Duchy primary school in Bradninch, Devon, knows to expect them on Wednesdays and Thursdays; Jasper is away again on Fridays but Owain is in lessons. Both boys are seven and in Year 2; neither has ever done a full week in school.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Duchy head Briony Ewing had never heard of flexi-schooling. The idea came from the Astles family, who were already members of the home-schooling organisation Education Otherwise. They told the Kearneys about it. Both families were anxious about formal education, but they wanted their children to have local friends.

When they approached Mrs Ewing, she saw it as another step towards inclusion; these were children who might otherwise not be in school at all.

She turned to Devon local education authority for advice. It was discouraging. She went back to the families, who presented her with the latest legal clarification from the 1996 Education Act. This allows schools to give children absence "with leave".

The decision rests with the school's head and governors, not the LEA, which must fund a full-time place for the child at a school that allows him or her to be educated off-site for part of the week. The school must then ensure that the child covers the national curriculum and reaches national standards - unlike home-schooled children, for whom LEAs have a duty only to ensure that they are being reasonably educated.

Together Mrs Ewing and the families sat down and worked out a plan. The parents could choose the days when their children were in school, but they had to stick to them for a term at a time. (They tend to choose days with music and PE.) The school also invites Owain and Jasper in for trips or rehearsals on their "home" days and will take them in an emergency.

The boys' class teachers give the families copies of their termly planning, so they can see what should be covered. The families agreed to keep portfolios of what their children do at home. Once a term they meet separately with Mrs Ewing, to discuss how it's working.

And so far it has worked extremely well. At home Jasper builds shelters, works on the allotment, cooks, reads and writes for pleasure with his sister Esme, four, who also started flexi-schooling at Duchy this month. Owain goes to museums and theatres, makes things, celebrates the seasons, and does "computery stuff" with his engineer father, Paul Andrews. (Cariad Astles is a drama lecturer; Helen and Stuart Kearney work in permaculture and children's theatre. All four parents work part-time.) Mrs Ewing says teachers can be frustrated that the boys come in halfway through a piece of work or leave one unfinished. But "they are doing as well academically and socially as others in the class, and they are delightful children".

There appears to be no flexi-bandwagon - around 300 families nationally choose the flexi-school option; many more inquire but are deterred. Other parents are curious, says Stuart Kearney, but "most people are happy to have their kids out of the house five days a week". A bandwagon would be hard to manage, says Mrs Ewing. "Having lots of kids coming and going would be chaos."

But she wouldn't necessarily turn them away; nor will she pour cold water on the families' hope to continue beyond primary schooling. "It might become harder for the parents without the resources we have at school. We said at the start that we would do our best, but if things weren't working we'd let them know. I'd like to think it works."

ONES TO WATCH

Case histories, legal details and contacts are on the flexi-schooling website www.warwick-district.org.uk flexi

Burton upon Trent Home of East Midlands flexi-college for 20 eight to 17-year-olds

Sir Christopher Ball Leading educationist and advocate for change

Birmingham Successful part-time school within St Paul's community project

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