Leading change for survival: the rural flexi-school approach


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Authors: Val Poultney and Duncan Anderson 

This blog article is based on a paper that has been accepted for publication in one of our journals Management in Education. Keep it an eye out for it shortly!

Nestled in the Staffordshire moorlands, a small rural school appointed a Head Teacher, who also served as teacher, for a school community of 5 children in 2010. Shortly afterwards, the school was earmarked for closure. Passionate for the school to remain open, the Head Teacher sought to adopt a flexi-schooling approach.  The school is now at capacity with just under 50 children, most of whom have previously been home educated or school refusers. Carnie (2017) describes flexi-schooling as an agreed contract and partnership whereby the school and family agree responsibilities for the education of the children concerned. It is characterised in part by there being no unique location for education. Parents, according to Neuman & Guterman (2019) are important and active participants in the education of their children. They have a clear educational role working in close collaboration and partnership with the school, where the home environment is central to the teaching process.

Creative thinking and a model of systems leadership involving the Head Teacher and School Business Manager, saw a period of rapid transformation underpinned by what Coffey (2010) defines as the cognition-systems approach. This aims to maximise effective action in conditions of high complexity and uncertainty to develop whole systems comprising the individual and their organisation.  The focus on an individual’s knowledge, learning and skill development and developing all forms of the organisation provides a context for the individual’s work.  System leaders are a powerful force for change and improvement (Higman et al. (2009).  Bush (2009) indicates that open systems pursue interchanges with the environment, responding to external influences and seeking support for the objectives of the organisation, in doing so, relationships between the school and its stakeholders have increasingly permeable boundaries. 

The many cycles described by Coffey (2010) has led the team from uncertainty to a desired goal where pupil numbers have risen to provide a local rural school which offers a mixed provision to cater for parents who wish to home-educate their children. Since these children generally remain in the setting throughout Key Stage 2 as flexi-schooled partners, it is possible to deduce that the model of flexi-schooling has the potential to harness and re-shape the philosophical stances which parents hold about education. Parents of children who have been home-educated and enter flexi-schooling at Key Stage 2, often opt to flexi-school their younger children too. The decision to flexi-school a second child at an earlier stage based on their experiences of flexi-schooling an older child first would suggest a shift in parents’ ideological views. 

Of interest for the future is the school’s development with a recently joined Multi-Academy Trust (MAT).  The MAT is keen to support the flexi-school offer but wish to formalise it at local policy level. In return, the flexi-school leadership team are seeking to extend their expertise to other schools in the MAT (Boylan, 2016). As part of the Trust, they seek to engage with the wider community to share their experience of leading a flagship flexi-school. They have already set up a federation for flexi-schooling, and are ready to advise parents, and other schools on the subject.   Additionally, they have a large presence through various social media platforms.

The positives of a flexi-schooling context can be seen in relation to a personalised, shared responsibility between home and school for teaching and learning.  The rapid growth of the school community is down to the application of a model of system leadership in education, where each challenge has been strategically overcome, journeying to a position of long-term viability, where an accumulated expertise has led to meaningful exchanges with a range of partners including the DfE, Parliament and parents of distant communities through the introduction of the flexi-schooling federation.  The pragmatist approach of school leaders in researching, developing and becoming experts in the field of flexi-schooling reflects a care for the families and children in restoring faith in the education system but also a resistance to the powerful sweep of the closure of small, rural primary schools.

duncan Duncan is Programme Leader for the BEd (Hons) QTS/MEdu with QTS programmes at the University of Derby. He is a personal professional academic tutor and undertakes school visits to assess practical teaching on both undergraduate and postgraduate teacher training courses.
val Val is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of Derby. She has previously been a secondary school science teacher, Head of Department and Senior Leader in schools.


Boylan M (2016) ‘Deepening system leadership: teachers leading from below’. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 44(1), 57 – 72.

Bush T (2009) Theories of Educational Leadership and Management (4th Edition). London: Sage.

Carnie F (2017) Alternative approaches to education: a guide for teachers and parents. London: Routledge.

Coffey G W (2010) A systems approach to leadership. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Higman R Hopkins D & Matthews P (2009) System Leadership in Practice. Maidenhead: Oxford University Press.

Neuman, A and Guterman, O (2019) ‘How I started home schooling: founding stories of mothers who home school their children’. Research Papers in Education, 34(2): 192-207.

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