It was a small, nondescript portable building and his hosts were keen to hurry him past, but there was something about it that made Mike Berrill stop. Intrigued, he asked to be shown inside.
This, his Californian hosts told him, was where children who lived too far from the school to attend every day came in once a month to collect a big box of educational materials, before heading back into the desert around Sacramento.
This might seem mundane. But it inspired Mr Berrill, who is headteacher of Biddenham Upper School in Bedford, to think about the possibilities of working with children outside the traditional education system.
On his return, he approached local home education groups and asked if they would be interested in using a portable classroom at his school.
That initial overture was rejected, but it sowed the seeds for a collaboration that is now bridging the divide between children educated at home and those taught at school. "It made me realise that education was going on beyond schools," Mr Berrill says of his eye-opening trip to the United States in 2001. "I was interested in what we could do to help."
Unlike Mr Berrill, many working teachers are sceptical about parents' choice to educate their children at home. The lack of a requirement to register means there are no accurate figures - estimates range from 20,000 children to 160,000 - and concern over the education provided means the relationship between the state education system and the home education community is often tense.
Earlier this year, a government review proposed a new system of registration, plus local authority inspection. Legislation is expected in the autumn, but many home education support groups have rejected the plan as unwarranted interference. The proposal to require parents to get a licence to educate their children at home will, they say, abolish their freedom to choose how their child will be taught.
Despite his initial rebuff, Mr Berrill persisted and the result is a scheme where Biddenham, plus nearby Queens Park Lower School, provide support, facilities and teaching to children who are being home educated. Typically, this is in the form of one two-hour session a fortnight per subject. This takes place after school hours, but is taught by Biddenham's teachers. The school also enters the children for exams.
In return, the children are on the school roll and have to register attendance, and their parents complete a weekly record of what they have done.
"If they want to do chemistry, they can come here for the equipment, and they might bring in their own teacher or they might have our teacher," says Mr Berrill. Taking classes of home-educated children is voluntary for Biddenham teachers, who are paid at adult education rates for the after- school sessions.
Setting it up wasn't straightforward. Both Biddenham and the Bedford Home Educators group had to overcome a number of hurdles, including meeting statutory requirements to register attendance, but it has received influential support. The project is backed by the Innovation Unit, formerly part of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and now a stand-alone body, and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, a charitable trust. Funding also enables Biddenham to lease some rooms that are on the site of a former dental surgery above a row of shops, as an office and classrooms for the use of Bedford Home Educators.
About 160 children are now involved in the scheme, called the Place Project. June McDonald, who runs Place and is chairman of Bedford Home Educators, started home educating her children after her eldest daughter was bullied at school. But the experience of getting her second daughter, Heather, through exams persuaded her that linking up with a school might not be a bad thing.
As well as the cost of study packs from the National Extension College, distance-learning specialists used by many home educating parents, there are also the fees to sit exams. Mrs McDonald says she was quoted pound;200 per pupil by one school for an examiner plus invigilation in one subject. Science subjects also pose difficulties for home educators.
"It is very hard to replicate the experimental subjects at home," she says. "You can do kitchen experiments but if you want to do serious science you need safety goggles, a fume cupboard and staff to show you how to use dangerous equipment.
"People do manage taking Open University science courses at home, but it is a very different experience to being able to do it with proper full- size equipment."
Not all the lessons happen at Biddenham. The Bedford Home Educators group still runs its own classes, using expertise from among its parents or by hiring outside specialists.
Although the home educators meet regularly, Mrs McDonald says there can still be a lack of continuity, and working with the school fosters a sense of community. Some parents were initially reluctant to register their children, but have been reassured by the lack of interference by the school. "The school has been very careful about not imposing rules and regulations, but you have to have some," she says.
"It is not just about giving them the resources, it is about giving them a community and getting them together, even if it is just once every two weeks. The real benefit of the scheme is that it's a shared learning experience."
Her eldest son, Jamie, started on the scheme when he was 13. "It was just a means to an end, a way to study science. It was not a big deal for me," he says. "It wouldn't be impossible otherwise, but why make it difficult for yourself when those facilities are being offered for free?"
Lessons at Biddenham were optional, so anyone who went was there because they wanted to be there. Jamie, now 18, says he saw the classes as playing a supporting role to home schooling, rather than being the bedrock of his education. He says the lessons may also have been more effective through being compressed to fit in with the time available.
He says the social element of home education meant adjusting to being in a class, even if only a dozen other children, was straightforward, but there were some things that jarred, including addressing teachers. "It took me about a week before I could call a teacher `Sir'," he says.
"You could do it on your own, but it is more enjoyable to learn with other people, provided the teaching is good. The expertise of the teachers is such an enormous help."
After taking GCSEs at Biddenham, Jamie enrolled in the school's sixth form, but he didn't stop home study altogether. For his maths A-level, he reached an agreement with his teachers that he would only turn up when he needed to. His attendance as a result was about 63 per cent at one point, but he did get four As and is now waiting to hear if he has got a place at Cambridge to study maths.
Perhaps as a result of his combined homeschool education, Jamie has a relaxed view of their respective benefits. "I don't like to think of things as belonging to school or home education - they should all just be ways of receiving an education," he says.
"Home education has learnt a bit from school, and I think school can learn a bit from home education."
His mother says the partnership provides the best of both worlds, giving parents control over their children's education, but the option of tapping into school staff and facilities.
"It is a bridge between the home school community and the school community. It is a hybrid that works marvellously and having done it both ways, completely unsupported and with this scheme, there is no comparison. It is wonderful."
But with home education's traditionally wary relationship with the state system, it's perhaps not surprising that not everyone in the home education community is so enthusiastic about the scheme. Mrs McDonald had been a co-ordinator for Education Otherwise, a support group for parents who home school their children, but she says she was relieved of her post when her link with the school became known. "There has been a lot of negativity about the scheme," she says.
Ann Newstead, a trustee of Education Otherwise, says the Bedford scheme does not have wide support among home schoolers, but maintains this is not a principled objection to working with a school. "A lot of home educators would say: `Fine, if that is working for you', but it is not something that appeals to a wider base," she says.
She says many home educators choose to enter their children for IGCSEs, which have no coursework element, and colleges and universities are increasingly open to admitting students without traditional GCSEs and A- levels.
While the Bedford scheme may work for some parents, what is in it for the school? "We get a tremendous confidence in the institution and that we're contributing to education in our community," says Mr Berrill. "Initially there was no motivation other than that, but it has progressively become to learn from reconfiguring the way we think about learning and the organisation of learning."
It may be the only scheme of its kind in the country, but Mr Berrill believes it could hold important lessons for the future of education. He quotes Charles Leadbeater, the author and former adviser to Tony Blair, in saying schools are the last great Fordist institution, where large numbers of people perform the same tasks to a set timetable.
Instead, he sees the partnership with home educating parents as creating a new model, with the consumers in control. "These parents are developing a consumer-driven, personalised education for their children," he says. "It could transform a factory-based system to something that is more responsive to parents and pupils.
"There was an intuition that if we just let this play we will learn something from it. I think we may have stumbled on something that is ultimately going to be quite important.
"We make choices on our own behalf and on our children's behalf, and to think that we don't want to do that in education is just a complete denial of people's rights."
Experiencing both systems has given Jamie McDonald his own perspective on the future of education. "The very thing school is setting out to do is often doomed to fail: this idea that you can educate every young person in these enormous buildings, often when a lot of them don't want to be there and aren't that interested.
"It's a very noble cause, and I don't know how to get around it, but perhaps the solution lies halfway between home education and school".
- Parents in England and Wales are responsible for providing their children's education "at school or otherwise", according to the Education Act 1996. In Scotland, parents have a duty to provide an education for their children, by sending them to school "or by other means".
- There is no requirement to notify the local authority if a child has never been registered at a state school, although parents may do so if they wish. But if a parent takes their child out of a state school, the headteacher is required to inform the local authority. In Scotland, parents taking their child out of school must inform the local authority.
- Parents who educate their children at home do not have to be trained teachers, nor do they need any qualifications. There is no requirement to follow the national curriculum, or to take formal tests, such as key stage 2 tests or GCSEs. The local authority may ask for information to monitor a child's progress.