When Donna Watmough-Triggs started home-educating her son Elijah, she never imagined that one day he might rejoin the school system.
A shy child, Elijah found routine difficult and at four years old had struggled with part-time primary schooling. Watmough-Triggs was already successfully home-educating her daughter Bethany, now 15, and thought she would do the same with Elijah.
But when the family moved to rural Norfolk two years ago, Watmough-Triggs became worried about the isolation and the lack of opportunities for Elijah to have social contact with other children his own age.
This is only one of the arguments teachers use against home schooling. They also fear that children will fall behind educationally. Indeed, most would argue that it is within the school system that most children fare best.
Watmough-Triggs, however - assisted by Simon East, headteacher of Erpingham Primary School, near Norwich - discovered what she considered the perfect compromise. "Flexi-schooling" is an arrangement between parents and a school, in which children are registered in the usual way but attend only part time. The rest of the time, they are home educated. Although flexi-schooling is legal in England, Scotland and Wales, it operates entirely at a headteacher's discretion.
For Elijah, now 8, it was ideal.
Watmough-Triggs and Elijah first spent a couple of morning sessions at Erpingham, joining in lessons together, before Elijah attended for an afternoon on his own. The school then worked out a more permanent arrangement.
"We started off with two days a week at school because Elijah needed the security of knowing he had the home option," Watmough-Triggs says. "But as his confidence grew, he started asking if he could go into school for another day. We thought two days would be perfect, but it's grown to four now. It's even possible he might go full time eventually."
Elijah now spends every Wednesday at home, where he has music lessons from his grandfather, a pianist, and Mandarin Chinese lessons with a private tutor via Skype.
Erpingham does not give formal guidance or lesson plans to its flexi- school parents, preferring to give them autonomy. But at home, Elijah often chooses to expand on work he has done in the classroom.
The school does, however, give parents a home-school book in which teachers write details of the work that students have done in class. In turn, parents are encouraged to share the work that has been done at home to ensure continuity.
School newsletters for each term outline the topics that students will study so that parents can continue these at home.
Erpingham Primary has just 36 students and almost half of them are flexi- schooled, but East says the system came about by accident rather than design.
Just over two years ago, student numbers had fallen to 13 and the tiny village school faced closure. Then East was contacted by a couple from nearby Norwich who were home educating their six-year-old son but wanted a bridge between this and full-time schooling.
They had already approached a number of schools that had refused to help. East, however, was open to the idea.
He says: "This is my sixth headship and I had never come across the idea before, but I thought it was a possibility and something worth looking into. So I trialled it with that family and developed an agreement where the boy would attend on the days expected."
After gaining agreement from the school's governing body and coming to an arrangement with the parents, East accepted the boy into school for two days a week.
"I never sought to advertise it because it was a solution designed for that particular family and not meant for other contexts. But news of it quickly spread by word of mouth," he says.
East draws up a flexi-school agreement with each set of parents detailing whether their children will attend for two, three or four days a week. Attendance is strictly monitored. If students miss an agreed school day, it is marked as an absence.
Parents often choose the days their children will attend based on the activities on offer, including forest school and other outdoor experiences.
"We have built a strong partnership with parents, who have made a conscientious decision to have a part in their child's education," East says. "The whole thing is underpinned by the strength of the agreement."
Boosting school rolls
The first flexi-school student is now in the first year of juniors and continues to be flexi-schooled, as does his younger sister.
East says that flexi-schooling has brought a renewed sense of "vibrance and vitality" to the school, and the approach has been praised by Ofsted for being "innovative and imaginative".
In a report published last year, the inspectorate highlighted the "good progress and continuity of learning" of Erpingham's flexi-schooled students, which it said was promoted by the "excellent collaboration" between the school and parents and carers.
Although East admits that it was "serendipity" that flexi-schooling rescued Erpingham and turned it into a viable school, other heads have actively used the approach to boost numbers.
Almost 200 miles away in Buxton, Hollinsclough Primary is little more than two classrooms sitting in the Staffordshire moorlands. Two years ago, there were just five remaining students.
But when headteacher Janette Mountford-Lees, by then the sole teacher, discovered that flexi-schooling was a legal option, she found "a real gap in provision".
The school now has 52 students, 32 of whom are part time. Children travel from up to 40 miles away to attend.
Like Erpingham, the school has an agreement, or a "memorandum of understanding", for its flexi-school scheme, setting out what it will provide and what is expected of parents and students.
The arrangement is open only to those who are already home educated and not in full-time schooling.
Parents are offered induction visits on a no-commitment basis, after which they or the school can choose to withdraw. Parents and the headteacher then sign an agreement specifying the number of school sessions the children will attend each week. Students are encouraged to wear uniform to feel part of the school community, although this is voluntary.
There is also an online learning platform so that students and their parents can follow the school's curriculum at home.
An alternative approach
Mountford-Lees says parents choose flexi-schooling for a number of reasons.
"Some children have difficulties coping with everyday school life," she says. "One child was so upset with school he was threatening to run away from home. The flexi option worked for him.
"Other parents believe in home education but want the reassurance of knowing what is happening in school, so their children don't miss out."
Alternatively, she says: "Some pupils are bright and want to follow their own learning pattern and take responsibility for their own learning. And some have special educational needs.
"One family had two children with high-functioning Asperger's syndrome. A special school was not suitable for them and the children couldn't cope with lots of people around them, so the mixture of home education and part-time lessons in a small school was ideal."
Although supporters say flexi-schooling is growing in popularity in the UK, the Department for Education says it has no clear figures on the practice because the ways in which schools record attendance and absence vary.
It is also unclear how many children are home educated because parents are under no legal obligation to register. Estimates put the number at between 60,000 and 80,000.
Having developed links with the home-education network through his scheme at Erpingham, East believes that as many as 2,000 of those children are being flexi-schooled.
Parents such as Watmough-Triggs and her family have found it hugely beneficial.
"It's been very good for us because we didn't think we would ever be back in the school system," she says. "But we have found it invaluable, not just from Elijah's point of view, but ours as well. It has given the whole family a sense of being part of a community.
"And there is constant interaction between what the school is doing and the children's education. There's always a sense of the doors being open. You don't just leave your child at the gate. You are welcome to walk them into the classroom."
Despite the positive feedback from parents, teachers and even Ofsted, flexi-schooling has always been a grey area. Recently, however, the DfE clarified matters and stated that flexi-schooling was a legal option, provided headteachers agreed to it.
Certainly, East is clear about the effect it would have on his primary if it were to be withdrawn.
"We would simply no longer be viable," he says. "Before flexi-schooling, we were threatened with closure. This has rescued us. It's not necessarily a solution for every school, but it could be a lifeline for small rural schools that are struggling with low pupil numbers."
How flexi-learning works
Hollinsclough Primary in Buxton, Staffordshire, has a detailed flexi- school policy in which it sets out what parents and students can expect and what is expected of them.
Each student, whether flexi-schooled or not, has an individual learning plan, with clear goals agreed with the children and their parents.
The timetable is organised so that flexi-schooled students can do follow- up work on the subjects covered via the school's online learning platform.
If parents wish, work can be provided to complete at home via the learning platform or workbooks.
Teachers and parents meet regularly to discuss progress.
Parents can also use the online learning platform to view their child's academic and assessment records.
The school holds workshops in which flexi-school parents share experiences and develop new ideas.
Flexible learning: tips for teachers
- Set up an agreement with parents that makes it clear which days the child is expected to attend. These days, if missed, will be counted as absence.
- Be open to discussion if parents want to amend the agreement.
- Don't see flexi-schooling as part of a staged return to school. Trying to coerce the child or their parents to go full time could produce the opposite of the desired effect.
- Encourage a parent to be active at school. If possible, encourage them to take part in some lessons or other school activities.
- Try to link work done at home and in the classroom. Not only does this help with continuity but it makes the child and their parents feel that their out-of-school work is valued. For example, students could be encouraged to carry on learning a topic they started in school at home, using online learning platforms.