Home and (Sometimes School) are Where the Heart and Head Are

20/06/2016 13:44 | Updated 20 June 2016

The headline in the TES read, "Wilshaw calls for more mavericks to shake up an 'ordinary education system'" (26 May 2016). Well it's a shame the outgoing head of Ofsted didn't make the national Alternative Educational Futures conference at Birmingham City University on Friday of last week. Had he done so he might have woken up to the fact that, despite the deadening hand of his own organisation and that of the DfE, the spirit of far from ordinary education is alive and well across the land.

The conference brought together an impressive and suitably heterodox array of theorists and practitioners, including peace educators, specialists in global learning , democratic education, libertarian education, and proponents of digital, self-determined learning (heutagogy). But what made the conference really buzz was that so many of the delegates and practitioners were active home educators, a group which according to figures on Home Education UK, provides education to 0.6% of compulsory education aged children - that's around 80,000 young people. Although "provides" is not a term home edders would use in this context, since, as they are keen to stress, to enter the realm of home education is to embark on a process of deliberate and highly effective co-learning.

The conference was dedicated to two stalwarts of "maverick" education, Roland Meighan and Philip Toogood, each of whom devoted their lives to promoting learning that understands the child in the round. Neither had truck with the kind of schooling that privileges the head at the expense of the heart, the sort that, in the view of last year's NUT report Exam Factories? is producing children with, "increasingly high levels of school-related anxiety and stress, disaffection and mental health problems."

While suspicious of formal education in general, both Meighan and Toogood believed in the power of a flexi-schooling, an approach which blends home education with part-time attendance at school, enabling young people to benefit from the best of both settings. And it's not just the children who can benefit from this arrangement. Six years ago Hollinsclough Church of England Primary School, situated in a surprisingly remote north Staffordshire moorland hamlet, was the country's smallest school, having only 5 children on roll. With no pub or other civic focus, the school's closure might well have been the final nail in the coffin of a community drifting towards becoming little more than a collection of holiday lets. Today the school has 48 pupils, 26 of them partly home educated. And the school's principal Janette Mountford-Lees pins this remarkable turnaround in recruitment firmly to the decision to begin flexi-schooling in 2009. It's an outcome which prompts Peter Humphreys of the Centre for Personalised Education and an academic with a longstanding interest in flexi-schooling, to observe, "it seems remarkable the Government isn't pushing the flexi-schooling model as a way to stem falling pupil numbers in rural schools."

But Hollinsclough's resurgence is not simply because its numbers are swelled by children who are partly home educated. Integrating full-time and part-time attenders called for some thoughtful and creative timetabling, and this freed up time for all pupils, whatever their mode of attendance, to learn through personalised and highly engaging thematic projects founded on real and pressing world issues. Because of this pupils don't experience school as a place merely to accumulate knowledge, but as a vibrant site of opinion and doubt, of concern and hope, of question and counter-question and, crucially, of exploration and fun. And while doing so, they develop skills and attitudes suited to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world which is prominent on the leadership development agenda of, it seems, pretty much every profession other than mainstream British education. The positive impacts of learning in this way have obvious appeal to parents growing ever more alarmed by the damaging impacts of an impersonal, data-driven, results preoccupied education system. It's hardly a mystery then that Hollinsclough should be full to capacity.

So it turns out the mavericks have been hard at work inspiring children throughout Wilshaw's watch. Wouldn't it be lovely to hope that his successor Amanda Spielman might find time away from the data to attend similar events to the Alternative Educational Futures conference and to visit schools such as Hollinsclough, where she could participate in some co-learning and engage her heart as well as her head? Perhaps Sir Michael will suggest it to her on his way out.