The tide turns

Encouraging children to pursue their talents is great - but what if that takes them out of school and around the world? Nick Morrison speaks to a head in that position

It is a dilemma familiar to every headteacher: what to do if a pupil wants to take time off school, particularly when they are part-way through their GCSE course. But few will have encountered the situation that faced Stuart Phillips when Peter and Heather Perham asked if their son could have a month off to sail across the Atlantic.

"Obviously, missing four weeks or so of your GCSE course is not ideal, and if people said they wanted to go away for four weeks for a holiday, I would not be happy," says Stuart, head of Chancellors School in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. "But on the other hand, this was a great opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"The most convenient time off would have been during the summer holidays but the winds weren't there, and the fact that it was the Christmas holidays and he would miss less school was a factor in choosing when he would go."

Last week, Michael Perham became the youngest person to sail the Atlantic single-handed. The 14-year-old, from Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, took six weeks to make the 3,500-mile crossing, taking the record from Seb Clover, the Isle of Wight teenager who was 15 when he made the journey in 2003.

In an interview on arrival in Antigua, Michael said one of the first things he would do was return to his GCSE work. Making sure he kept up with his schoolwork was a concern shared by his teachers. "We hoped to be able to set work he could email back and forth and set up live links with his teachers, but it was felt the battery-life of his equipment wouldn't allow that," says Stuart.

"So instead we got his teachers to think about the things he could do, which was tricky as one of his subjects is drama, and in the end we used some GCSE revision guides. His teachers told him the sections they would be covering in class while he was away, and to work through those."

The attractions of homework may seem to pale alongside dolphins and flying fish, but Stuart says Michael's teachers were optimistic that the boredom of long periods at sea would ensure his studies were not neglected.

Allowing a child to pursue their talents during school time is an issue that has cropped up with some regularity for Stuart, with two footballers picked to play for junior England teams and pupils appearing in a Harry Potter film and EastEnders. He says the bodies concerned are always keen to encourage schoolchildren to keep up with their work.

"Achieving something, whatever that might be, raises confidence and esteem and brings them into other areas of their life," says Stuart. "The fact that Michael was able to do this shows a lot of things about him. I'm sure there'll be benefits when it comes to sitting his GCSEs.

"We knew he was a good sailor because he won a lot of medals and when you get children with this sort of talent, you've got to work with it and appreciate that there's something special about what they can do in that particular field."

Many of Michael's classmates followed his progress via his daily blog, as well as a weekly newsletter produced by the school, and as his voyage neared its end, the increased publicity brought his pending sailing achievement to the attention of the rest of the school.

Michael's yacht, Cheeky Monkey, was shadowed by his father, who was also in regular radio contact during the voyage, which took them from Gibraltar to Lanzarote then the Cape Verde Islands, before crossing to the West Indies.

Stuart says he plans to talk to Michael on his return about the possibility of sharing his experiences with the school. His teachers are also planning to discuss with him what he has managed to do and where he needs to catch up.

"This is a boy who is very aware of what his priorities are," says Stuart.

"If he had wanted to do this in a year's time we would have had some worries, but the first term of Year 10 is probably less inconvenient than it could have been.

"As a school, we think it's fantastic. We knew this was a great achievement, but I don't think it hit me until we had all the media interest. It was eye-opening."

While Michael might face some catching up in most of his subjects, Stuart says in at least one, his journey has given him a head start. "One of his subjects is PE and we hope he will be able to use this voyage as part of his coursework."

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