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What’s the Alternative? A Q&A on Flexi-schooling with Dr Helen Lees

We were really excited to welcome Dr Helen Lees of Newman University to this week’s Q&A on flexi-schooling. Helen is Reader in Alternative Education Studies, and her research touches on a variety of topics such as home education, democratic schooling, educational theory,  silence, sexuality, attachment, democratic societies as understood at the personal level, and morality.


Q: Hi Helen, thanks for joining us. As you know we are really interested in what research has been done about flexi-schooling – we’ve found it hard to find any (though thanks for all the links you have just posted!). Where is research going on, and what is it telling us so far?

Helen: Everything depends when it comes to educational alternatives on nomenclature: what we call ‘flexi-schooling’ creates different sets of questions but also where we speak about it and the local laws and policies matters greatly.

In some areas of the world ‘it’ might be called ‘flexible learning’.  Flexible learning sounds like it is flexi-schooling but that is not how we in the UK might view ‘flexi-schooling’ which has a very narrow and specific meaning. The term ‘flexi-schooling’ for me in this exchange relates to part time schooling, part time home educating.

If you are asking is there research on flexi-schooling in the UK, then I would say very little. I have not yet encountered a paper on flexi-schooling as it is understood in the UK – although I’d like to read one. I’d like to get one as an editor and publish it in my journal Other Education so everyone can get hold of it for free. Much is locked behind paywalls which is not a good situation for parents wanting to access research.

PSG D: Wow – the idea of there not being a paper on it at all! When there are so many parents doing it – you’d think someone would be looking into it! That is definitely a gap in research that we can fill!

Helen: The thing is that, when we speak about flexi-schooling we can refer to home education research to find half the answers, and to schooling research for the other half (if it is about open and flexible schools who respect home education). It is the middle bit where we want to know about – the joining of these two worlds is where we need more information.


Q: So what would your ideal paper be about – is there a specific aspect of joining the two worlds that interests you?

 Helen: There are many, many angles we might want to know about. For example:

  • How do children cope or handle the transition between environments?
  • How do teachers deal with part-time nature of attendance?
  • How do children manage friendship groups in settings where some friends are in school full time and others half time?
  • What do children say about flexi-schooling?
  • What do parents say?
  • Is there an impact on well-being?
  • What benefits if any can be found in this mixture in comparison to benefits of home education?

PSG D: Wow – that’s pretty much exactly the list of questions that we were hoping to have answered by research! Incredible that they’ve not been tackled before!

Helen: Such research is located all over the place and tracking it down depends on many various factors such as wording, country and so on. Specifically with regard to UK flexi-schooling, the only work (by an academic) I’ve seen is of Roland Meighan, which now is quite old.

I have seen a lot of home education and flexi-schooling things over the years but no journal papers on flexi-schooling yet. I may have missed something.

But the answers are there in home education-focused research because many home educators have had some experience of ‘flexible moments’. It would be easy if there was a paper called  ‘Flexi-schooling – a Review of the Research to Date’, but there isn’t. We have to search for the answers elsewhere.

The answers exist, but in my view – which may be wrong, and I ‘m open to contradictions, – work needs to focus specifically on the Hollinsclough-type schools [a school which openly welcomes flexi-schooling]. Perhaps some is being done as we speak. It’s very possible.

I believe that there should be some research done, but it needing funding, and which funder is interested? The problem with this government is that it tries to play down home education because if research suggested flexi-schooling was the best kind of education then all parents would be interested and the school system would be in disarray. It’s a control thing.

Something that is interesting about flexi-schooling research is just how few academics get interested in it. I’ve never heard of a flexi-schooling PhD. There should be one. Any volunteers? It is very interesting but the home education (full time) scene is far bigger. More should be done on flexi-schooling – you’ve inspired me!

Q:  So does this mean that if someone, say, us, did some research on flexi-schooling in the UK, that you would be up for publishing it in your journal? *hopeful face*

Helen: Oh yes – I’d definitely be interested in considering that. And would help you as much as possible to get it published in either the Peer Reviewed or Other Contributions section of Other Education– the only difference is the level of academicness.

PSG D: Thank you! We’ll hold you to that!

Helen: Totally – I’d be thrilled to get something.


Q: Are there any figures nationally on how many people are flexi-schooling?

Helen: The numbers of flexi-schoolers is very low. The reason for this is that mainstream schools and many other kinds of schooling don’t have the imagination to allow it. Heads of schools can be wary. It can be a fight so often I sense it is far easier to just pull out altogether and home educate.

I would imagine there are less than 1000 flexi-schoolers and frankly I think it is likely to be less than 500. There are people who would have a better sense of those figures – Fiona Nicholson from Ed Yourself is very good on numbers.


Q: Is there any research from other countries on flexi-schooling?

 Helen: In other countries flexi-schooling exists in different forms because the education laws operate in different ways. I have heard of US children who use part of the local school facilities but might not call that flexi-schooling. In Australia they call what I would call alternative education, flexi-schooling. Have a look at the chapter by Marnee Shay in Imagination for Inclusion (edited by Derek Bland). You can read it here:

PSG D: I am I right in thinking home education is not legal in Germany and some other European countries?

PSG B: It’s illegal in Holland. Which amazed me as I always think of the Dutch as so liberal.

PSG C: Yes and Sweden and Portugal. Others have strict requirements too. Sweden argues that it’s system is so good that no-one need home education ?

Helen: It’s not totally illegal in any country except Germany but it’s often very close to total. See Wikipedia page for the country stats [].

Bad things go down in Sweden re home education.

PSG C: I recently spoke to a Canadian woman who said they were given funding (£1000 per year), linked to a school, which they could use or not and that their local authority equivalents were exceptionally helpful and positive.

PSG A: Is that standard in Canada?

PSG C: It may just have been her province, but I got the impression it wasn’t as frowned upon as it is here.


Q: My neighbour flexi-schools her daughter. And there’s another girl in her class who also flexi-schools. So I’m amazed there might be only 500 flexi-schooled kids in the whole of the U.K.!

We wondered if it might be more common in rural areas where the schools are desperate to have kids on their rolls, vs oversubscribed city schools where the school effectively calls the shots?

PSG F: Is there any plan to assess the demand for flexi-schooling? From reading the flexi-schooling families Facebook page it is obvious that this is a growing feeling amongst parents that flexi-schooling is right for their children

Helen: There are lots of things going on all around the world and if we cast aside strict nomenclature for flexible attitudes to what our children do or can do when it comes to engaging with schools then anything is possible. In the Handbook post I put up – there is an example of a school called Free Space En in Japan – so great. Not half time as such but then if children are school refusing they may only engage part time so are they being flexi-schooled?

Again, if we open up the term a bit and away from the attendance roll counting (which has now changed from code b to c (?) – Fiona has done this work, see her site, then many people could be said to flexi-school because they do things like attend a ‘sort of’ school such as the Otherwise club [] which offers community-based collective education. I would not call it a school and I doubt they would want that, for all the baggage that comes with that definition, however one could conceive of it as school-like in that it brings people together on a site regularly.

When I say 500 flexi-schooled children, this is linked to official statistics. I only know of two mainstream schools who are well known for it and not all children there do it – these are fairly small schools. I’m happy to nudge it up to 1000. the trouble is that no one collects this kind of data. Fiona at EdYourself would be a good person to ask re numbers. I’ve not read anything about flexi-schooling numbers in the UK ever.

In rural areas this is apparently becoming a trend as these small schools try to survive. The law allows a school to collect all the per pupil money for a flexi-schooling child so it makes school business sense and I’ve heard, is enabling some rural schools to stay open.

PSG B: So that suggests that basically, when parents have the choice, a lot of them want to flexi-school. But a lot of the time, they don’t have that choice.

Helen: Indeed, the choice for flexi-schooling is blocked by headteachers. In law it is open to every parent to ask for it but the headteacher in the case of flexi has the right to refuse if they feel it is not in the best interests of the child. Alas they often seem to go to that refusal mode as a default.

Headteachers are suspicious too often of anything home eddy. It’s a real shame and a serious problem in my view.

PSG H: So funding shouldn’t come into the equation really?

Helen: The law is the same everywhere in England. If a child is REGISTERED with a school – this is the key bit – then the school draws down the per capita funding for the child. But if the child goes off site and the headteacher agrees that is ok and accepted, the school keeps all the money.

PSG B: In that case, why aren’t more heads positive about flexi-schooling? If they still get the money?

Helen: They have a limited imagination about what works. They are stuck in policy drives, league table agendas and fear. They also seem to have little in the way of pedagogical knowledge or imagination when it comes to alternative approaches. Tragic but true. Not true for all of course – some headteachers are genius but far too many lack this capacity to think outside the box.

PSG F: I think quantifying the numbers actually flexi-schooling could be gathered from local authority statistics. I think what would be more difficult to quantify is the current demand for flexi-schooling amongst home educating parents and those in the school system seeking an alternative. Also where this demand is across the UK. Until this demand is quantified it will be hard to convince the policy makers to assist small schools in offering flexi-schooling.

PSG D: But is it likely that heads are not always reporting flexi-schooling to the LA? If I’m honest, I suspect our head is keeping it to himself……

Helen: You have to use a new absence code since 2013. Fiona talks about this on her website (

However, I’m not sure it would be possible to get the numbers of flexi-schoolers this way because the new absence code covers lots of different situations.

PSG F: Code B is used in the case of the schools currently offering flexi-schooling which means that the home days are effectively are supervised by the school. The children are not marked absent in these schools.

PSG F: Could we map out demand through a social media survey assessing home education sites and flexi-schooling sites?

Helen: You could try. It would be very interesting.

PSG F: It would help small schools see where, and how big, the demand is. It could justify new staff being employed if the school opened their doors to flexi-schoolers


Q: It sounds as if we should talk to Fiona Nicholson from Ed Yourself. Is there anyone else you’d recommend we talk to?

PSG F: I saw a reference to a lady called Anna Price at Exeter University she is looking at mental health issues with children in schools and has an interest in the flexi-schooling issue.

Helen: Ah interesting. Asking Peter Humphries via the Personalised Education Now website [] is a good way to go forward. He and Alison Sauer have done a lot of work on flexi-schooling. They are following on from the pioneering work of Roland Meighan in this area.

PSG F: There is a flexi-schooling strategy group and a new flexi-schooling federation which offers support and advise to schools wishing to explore this as an option for their school. Details available via Hollinsclough School website.


PSG C: Where do people looking at flexi-schooling get their data when there are so few flexi-schoolers in the UK? Are the flexi-schoolers they look at in the same category as we would consider to be flexi-schooling?

 Helen: Researchers often guess relative to other figures they know, the law and what they have heard about what is going down where, how and why. Again, with home education numbers it is typically rough estimates (guessing).

Helen: As with home education figures, ideas are all over the place. 1000 is what I would expect it to be. 500 is what it might be. 5000 is what it could be if you take away certain legal phrasing, data gateways etc. An open field. If anyone want to do freedom of info requests to 21000 schools feel free! There might be another way but I can’t think of it.

PSG A: There are 2,056 primaries in Scotland.

PSG B: 32 local authorities in Scotland. I had assumed LAs would know how many kids were flexi-schooling in their area. But maybe that was naive!

PSG A: I much prefer 32 🙂 Hopefully realistic not naive. (I have no idea which one!)

PSG B: It Would still take a while though, I imagine! (although – many hands and all that… )

PSG C: I wonder if you could even get that information or whether there would be ethical, DPA issues.

Helen: You could get the info but only if headteachers revealed it and I think it would have to be with a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. That is a lot of stamps! Maybe trying LAs first would be a good starting point, but that is still a lot of stamps and I don’t know how, or if, they actually collect that data. Only schools would definitely know. Doing an LA pilot FOI might reveal something about data collection re flexi schooling.

PSG A: 32 FOI requests is manageable, Heck, 2000 is manageable given the will. I had an office job years back where we posted out 1,000s of exam results, you just get on and do it and it’s done!

If we have to post not email that’d be the whole budget though. Can you do FOI by email I wonder?

PSG C: Yes, FOI requests can be emailed.

PSG C: I’m told councils will have an email address, possibly a designated officer

PSG D: There is sometime some sensitivities with home educating families about data collection. Do you think these also exist with flexi-schoolers? Because ideally self-reporting would be the most useful.

Helen: I think it’s less sensitive with flexi-schoolers as by default they have official permission to do what they want. But they still belong to the home education community, and there they will find and potentially share in sensitivities.

PSG F: The reason for parents wanting to flexi-schooling may be so varied that attempting to categorise them may not draw any conclusions. But the growing demand now being identified by the increasing number of schools now openly offering it may be worth quantifying as a starting point for assessment. Then, if a new code is allowed for flexi-schoolers, their progress and well-being can be monitored and researched more clearly by the DfE.

PSG G: I don’t think it’s always simply the school’s decision. I know in Edinburgh you have to get permission from the council. Maybe many more families would be interested if it were allowed.

PSG C: Could we ask individual local authorities if flexi is an option there? I’m almost certain that Perth are an outright no.

PSG B: We could ask them a load of questions, if we were writing to them anyway.

PSG A: It wouldn’t take long to email all 32 and ask if they have a policy on flexi-schooling and whether it’s them or the school that decide.


Q: Expanding on the flexi-schooling idea. Should education be personalised to the individual child and would this ever be possible?

I think there’s a lot of pressure on teachers, and most do an incredible job, but do we need a complete rethink on how we educate our children with the possibility of flexi-schooling being a starting point?

Helen: Totally! Flexi-schooling is just the best thing in my view. I love the idea of home education but I love flexi-schooling better. There is something about this crossing between worlds which is good for children in my view.

Education should be personalised of course, but adults with agendas, careers, and notions about what a child needs (instead of asking them!) get in the way. It’s a mess really because the child always seems to get pedagogically left out of the picture and rarely do teachers have the first idea how to stop being in charge. Complex.

PSG C: As a home educator I’m interested in why you think flexi is a better option? Just my curiosity.

Helen: There is research (in Other Education by Boaz Tsabar [ Note that the full text of the paper can be downloaded as a pdf]) that surprised and affected me about why democratic schooling could be not as good as mainstream.

The thing is that educational alternatives can create bubbles. The world is formed so much by schooling. I think seeing the rules and regulations (loosely speaking) of the freer side and the authoritarian (well more than freedoms of home education) can be very helpful for children. In my view it forms them in a robust way. But we need research!

Home educators are so amazing. There is nothing wrong with not crossing over but I think to have the choice is great. It always comes back to choice. We all need to broaden choice making for our children’s education.

PSG C: I can’t say I agree that being in an authoritarian environment is helpful to children. I’ve read so much about unschooling that I think that’s a fallacy. I completely agree with the opportunity of choice. I often wonder how many schooled children are offered the choices home educated children are.

PSG D: I totally agree that an authoritarian environment can be very damaging, but different schools operate with different levels of this. And if kids are to learn how to deal with these environments, do they not need a bit of practice? I don’t think that by ignoring authoritarianism it’ll just go away, so we need to equip kids to deal effectively with it. A bit of both seems to have merits.

Sorry – just playing devil’s advocate!

Helen: You are right – that’s just my point – let them encounter the devil of coercion, and of course some schools have indeed done amazing things to become less authoritarian. Schooling is a very mixed picture but still not mixed enough.

Sometimes kids need to come up against a wall, right? There is not so much of that in the freedoms of home education, de-schooling etc.

It is awful and I disagree with Boaz, but he made me think. I think the bubble issue is an important one to debate. Debate only perhaps! Given how awful schools can be… Not a clue… very difficult and sad too often.

When I have told schooled children about the freedoms of home edding and democratic schools their eyes pop out of their heads. They become very jealous and very sad. Which says it all for me. Tragic.

Some children like school. But the figure is exaggerated! That to say this seems to some as controversial is crazy. It’s a fact – I’ve seen far too much research on harms schools do.

I’ve been called offensive for speaking about alternatives.

PSG C: I can imagine. Some people look at me like I’ve grown two heads when I say we home educate.

It would be awesome if this option was open to all. I don’t think everyone should home educate but I agree it should be about providing people with information to allow them to make an informed decision that is right for their child.


Q: There seems to be lots of reasons why children are flexi-schooled such as needing additional support, bullying etc. What about parents who would like to have their children in state school but may also share the time with outdoor learning such as forest schooling? Is this the same thing?

Helen: Home ed and flexi-schooling are a kind of formal situation. The others you mention such as forest school would be deemed extra curricula unless it was a kind of forest schooling that was full time and efficient or mixed in with home ed in a flexi way – tricky.

PSG E: So what are the options for education in Scotland other than mainstream school?

PSG C: Probably once they reach compulsory education age, you can choose from public school, private school, flexi and home education. There will be various types of private school. If only they could all be Summerhill [established democratic school].

PSG E: I want my daughter to do outdoor and practical learning as I think may suit her more. But I guess I could just look around and see what local schools offer.

PSG C: Some forest schools will cater for children 5+ but generally are outside school hours unless you make your own arrangements.

Helen: Have look a look at the work of Sarah Knight on this on the Forest School Association website:

PSG E: Thank you. When I lived in England I was close to a Steiner Waldorf school and wondered if they were also in Scotland. But cheaper, lol!

PSG C: There’s a Steiner school in Edinburgh but not sure where else

Helen: Check out this for information on Steiner Education:…/what-is-steiner-education/

PSG E: Thank you, I know they can be very expensive, which is a shame as we really need to get back to basic sometimes. I worry about all this modern technology in school now – no blackboards and chalks, and I can imagine exercise books will go soon, and even using books for research not the internet. It’s just tablets and computers in every lesson.

Helen: Alas, even initiatives such as the free schools in England have operated with little diversity at the level of pedagogy and model. It could have been so different. It is not. The big beast stopping things diversifying is Ofsted.

PSG B: I was listening to the radio in the car today, and they said the head of Ofsted has criticised schools for focusing too much on teaching to the test and not enough on a broader idea of what education should be about. I nearly crashed the car!

PSG C: Although Ofsted did provide Summerhill with a glowing report (eventually)! But these schools are only open to those who have a fair amount of income available

Helen: Yes, as with all educational diversity and brilliance for children it often appears to be that money buys it. That is a bad situation. In this sense only home education is an open door for all parents but even then, the loss of one wage is a big decision that not all can or want to take.

PSG D: Yes – we were discussing this the other day – how much equity there is in flexi-schooling and home education. It seems it’s the preserve of the better off. What would be great is if we could use flexi-schooling to demonstrate the effectiveness of methods other than are being used in schools – open-ended child-led discovery etc – and then show that they could be used in schools for the benefit of everyone.

PSG C: Not all home educators have one parent off full time though.

Helen: Indeed there is so much that we can and should disagree with, but then we need to fight for wider choice than the schools brochure that comes through the door for every parent of a three year old.

They call it the “education brochure” but then proceed to only talk about which school the parent wants. Not options in the broader sense. My book Education without Schools and my PhD looked at this terrible deficient in choices.

PSG E: Thank you, I’ve got few years till she goes to school but this given me a great start in finding out what opinions we have.


Helen: This is a good article on flexi-schooling:

PSG C: I think some of this information may only be applicable to England. The procedures for home education are different in Scotland and possibly the terms for flexi-schooling are too? Scottish guidelines: Flexi-schooling is mentioned in this despite what the heading says

Helen: Yes – absolutely- it is a very big area depending on the term and location.

The schoolhouse post is old so thanks for the link. What is your experience in Scotland of flexi if you have some? Did you manage to get it? etc…

PSG C: I don’t flexi-school, I home educate but I’m interested in this topic as most people who discuss flexi on home education sites say it’s very difficult to arrange unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Helen: Indeed – the Headteacher blocks it. I think flexi s is the best of all worlds but it is not easy in current law to get it to happen. In rural areas there seems to be more scope for the economic reasons mentioned elsewhere which have made struggling Heads (for numbers) open up to this option.


Q: In your research have you come across anything that explains why it’s not provided as an automatic option. I’m thinking here about people who want to utilise school but for whatever reason their child isn’t coping with full time school and part time would work better. So many people seem to be unaware that alternatives exist.

Helen: That is politics, fear, stupidity. For me that is why.

Helen: I could say so much more! See my book on education without schools (post made to link to it) as I discuss much of this there but linked mostly to home education but the issues are the same.

PSG C: Those were my suspicions. So narrow minded.


Helen: Thank you all. this has been a lot of fun. Do check out the posts and follow through to other people who have worked with flexi-schooling face to face. My knowledge is broad and not as close as them in some ways to flexi-schooling lived stories and I think there are many lines to new conversations you can travel where specific flexi-schooling debates can be had. Enjoy and thanks for this exchange.

 PSG: Thank you so much! 🙂 Really interesting, lots to think about.

For more information, take a look at:

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