Flexible working….dream or reality?

Flexible working….dream or reality?

Jill Berry writes for Teachtalks

There has been a good deal of discussion recently about the need for flexible working practices in the world of education – including for leaders, as well as teachers – if we are to address the issues of workload and building pressure, and to continue to do the best job we can for the children and young people we serve. A recent education summit on the subject led by Justine Greening took place in London, where a number of proposals were announced. See the report here: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/greening-announces-flexible-working-drive . Executive Head Hannah Wilson wrote brilliantly on the subject in an earlier piece for TeachTalks: http://www.teachtalks.co.uk/how-flexible-are-schools-when-it-comes-to-recruiting/. And this piece in the Guardian explores the subject of ‘over-work’, not simply a phenomenon in schools, as it points out: “One in 10 Britons is now what the Office for National Statistics classifies as overemployed, meaning they work more hours than they want and would take a pay cut to do less.” See https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/sep/16/part-time-working-revolution-people-want-family-social-life.

So flexible working includes receptivity to accommodating part-time requests, where possible – adopting a ‘How can we try to make this work?’ rather than ‘These are all the reasons why we can’t make it work’ as an initial response. But the issue is wider than just having the option to work part-time. Some educational professionals don’t want to work part-time, and some may not be able to afford to. I was struck by a tweet from Executive Principal Helena Marsh recently: Can’t help but think that it should be possible to work FT and have a family and a life. Deeply wrong if FT work expected to sacrifice this.

I often say, when leading leadership training at all levels, that if it isn’t possible to do a dedicated, committed job and still to have a life outside work, there’s something wrong with the job, not with you. Teaching, and leadership within schools, is an important job, but it IS a job, and shouldn’t be the sum total of who we are. We need time to relax and unwind, to rest and refresh. We need time with our friends, our families, and for our wider interests. We will be more effective professionals, and more healthy and balanced human beings, if this is the case. Those with leadership responsibility need to recognise this, to model it, and to accommodate it. Working full-time should still mean that all this is possible.

So what can we do in schools to accommodate and encourage flexible working? Consider the following:

  • We have to challenge the perception that those who wish to work flexibly are in some way lacking full commitment. Wanting to achieve a sustainable balance in our lives is not something any of us should feel the need to apologise for.
  • Job shares and part time working can work extremely well, providing that communication is good and there is a determination to work productively with others so that there is no drop in standards or aspirations. There may be timetabling challenges but this should not deter us from finding ways of ensuring those who need greater professional flexibility are not lost to schools altogether, including those who return to teaching after a break – perhaps after maternity leave, working abroad or taking time out to work in another professions.
  • It is far better to appoint an excellent practitioner within a flexible arrangement than a less effective professional who does not require such flexibility. I was struck when listening to one of the speakers at a #WomenEd event last year who saw a senior leader role advertised and rang the head to ask if she would be considered if she were only interested in working three days each week. The head’s answer was, ‘I would rather have an excellent candidate three days a week than a less impressive one for five.’ She got the job.
  • Considering the example above, sometimes we have to be confident and courageous enough to ask those questions. And if we are on the receiving end of such a question, we need to be open-minded and prepared to consider requests in a positive and proactive way rather than simply seeing this as a ‘complication’. If this encourages talented returners, or helps to retain good people who need additional support, we will strengthen the calibre of the staff in our schools.
  • Actively explore opportunities to work from home when this is appropriate. As a headteacher, this was something I did during heavy school reports periods when I found I could work much more productively uninterrupted – though my PA always knew how to contract me in an emergency which meant I was required back at school. Technological developments should support home working.
  • We need to continue to talk about this and to learn from others. If particular schools, or Trusts, are achieving success with flexible working, how are they doing so? Can we share and spread whatever has been found to be useful? Who is effectively using strategies such as sabbaticals or study leave, for example? What other flexible practices within full-time roles are proving successful? Let’s resist the impulse to keep the good ideas to ourselves. Perhaps this is something that the Chartered College could help to co-ordinate and promote. Certainly initiatives like #WomenEd have been extremely helpful in bringing educators together to learn with and from each other.

Throughout my 30 years in schools as a teacher and a leader, I always worked all day on Sunday: marking, preparing, reading, writing school-related documents. I would work several days in every holiday, too (though I always ensured I managed to rest and relax, too, so that I returned to work feeling refreshed and re-energised. See: https://staffrm.io/@jillberry/9PPyocEG61). But weekends were busy – on Saturdays I would wash, clean, iron, shop (supported by my husband, but still time-consuming) and visit my elderly mother. Then Sunday was ‘schoolwork’.

But I remember the joy of the Bank Holiday weekend in term-time. When we had a three-day weekend, I was able to take a day for myself – to relax properly, perhaps read, walk, see a friend, watch a film – whatever I chose to do. In my dream world, every person working in a school/college would work for only four days, but the students would attend for five. Challenging to timetable – but surely not impossible? This would be the new full-time. It might result in teachers and leaders who were fresher, calmer, more energised and effective. We would need to organise ourselves well and communicate effectively so that when we were working on our four days (on each of which some of our colleagues would be missing) nothing dropped through the cracks. It would be wonderful if the finance from government were there to introduce this system while still protecting current salary levels. But, even if this were not the case, I do wonder whether the profession would be prepared to consider working for 4/5ths of their usual salary in order to buy this change in lifestyle? I recognise that at the moment we have a supply issue which means we couldn’t accommodate reducing teachers’ hours in this way. But I wonder whether this system would make working in schools so much more appealing, that recruitment would actually rocket (and many more potential returners WOULD choose to return)? It’s a dream, perhaps, but a very appealing one….

In the meantime, I hope that educators will work together to make flexible working a feasible reality for more individuals, and something which becomes the norm, rather than the exception, in our schools.

Jill Berry is a former headteacher, leadership consultant and author of ‘Making the leap – moving from deputy to head’


Jill Berry

Jill is a former headteacher, now leadership consultant and author. Her latest book is "Making The Leap:Moving from Deputy to Head".

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