Why Schools Must Embrace Flexible Working

Flexible working in schools has been a hot topic this week, and rightly so. Recent analysis by the NFER recommended that

  • “The Government and stakeholders in the secondary sector need to look urgently at identifying ways that accommodate more and better part-time working in secondary schools.
  • Further research with secondary schools which successfully offer greater flexibility in working patterns should be undertaken and best practice shared. “

The factors driving this recommendation are a growing number of Secondary pupils (forecast to rise by almost a fifth in the next decade) coupled with well-documented difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers.  The NFER report also found that primary schools seem to be much better at supporting part-time working.

It’s clear that there are problems in the teacher supply model and current retention practices, not least because workforce analysis tends to be 2 years out of date by the time it is published ( Louis Coffait has some ideas how this could change).  So while we know for example that the secondary teacher wastage rate was 11.2% in 2015, we don’t really know what it is now.

While the spend on training new teachers by the DFE in 2013/2014 was £555 million, significantly less ( £35.7 million) was invested in teacher development and retention, of which LESS THAN £100,000 was spent on improving retention. That’s right, less than the CEO of a MAT earns in a year. Quite a lot less, actually.

There is a pool of thousands of qualified teachers in the UK who are not working in schools. Efforts to attract them back into teaching have not been very successful. The 2015 Return to Teaching program was “scuppered” (in the words of Schools Week) by the lack of flexible working opportunities, with just 3 of the 23 recruits getting back into teaching.  Clearly lessons have been learned, and a new pilot requires the schools involved to guarantee a flexible position at the end of training.

A recent NASUWT report found that teachers are reluctant to pursue flexible working requests, and there certainly seems to be a culture in some schools that flexible working is an inconvenience, and that the school is doing the teacher a favour. This has to change. Schools and MATs that embrace a flexible working culture (see this inspiring example from Hearts Academy Trust on the DFE teaching blog) find it to be a positive factor in the success of the school. Interestingly, although lack of continuity at primary and the perceived need to split classes to accommodate part-timers at secondary are often cited as barriers to part-time work, I could find no large-scale data about the impact of part-time work on pupils while researching this piece. And I really asked around. I really did.  (Please let me know if you know of any.) In fact a lot of barriers seem to have been constructed to part-time working that simply must be dismantled. A recent @WomenEd slow chat explored this issue in some depth and you can do no better than read Emma Sheppard’s superb summary and her work on flexible working options in general on the WomenEd blog.

The briefest glance at the demographics of the profession makes it blindingly obvious that part-time working has to be embraced. Women, especially in their 30s and 40s, are far more likely to work part-time than men.  The profession has more women than men (62.5% at secondary), so schools either need to accommodate flexible working or accept that fact that there will not be enough qualified teachers to put in front of classes in some parts of the country. What a waste of experience and talent.

I don’t think that part-time working should only be an option for mothers of young children, by the way. There’s clearly a lot of debate to be had in this area which is way beyond the scope of this blog, but everyone has the right to request flexible working.  Read Debra Kidd’s excellent blog on the Hidden Workload Scandal  about how staff go “part-time” while continuing to work full-time hours. It is excellent and resonates with the conversations I have had while researching this piece.  The DFE Workload Survey findings bear this out with part-timers working a greater percentage of hours outside their school hours than full-timers.  At an average of 55 hours a week a “full-time” teaching job is really a job and a half, leaving little time for family and other interests.

Here’s an interesting statistic from last weeks #flexworkdfe event.  Jobs advertised on TES Global get 13% more interest if they mention part-time working. I’m sure that there are schools up and down the country who would be delighted to get 13% more interest in their job adverts. Think about it.

Sam is a primary school teacher and founder of schoolwell.co.uk. You can find her on twitter  or send her an email.

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