Flexible working: my life in a part-time leadership role

Could part-time contracts for leadership positions solve recruitment and wellbeing issues in one fell swoop? Dr Emma Kell certainly thinks so.

Tes Editorial

A Teacher Demonstrating Flexible Working

It’s 9.45 on Wednesday morning and, despite being a department head at my school, I am still sat at home. Because, as of September this year, I negotiated a part-time leadership role for myself in a North London school, in order to devote myself to completing my doctoral studies.

I consider myself extremely lucky. In my 20 years of teaching and my extensive contact with teachers and leaders through educational networks, I have known very few middle or senior leaders to be part time. I am also yet to see a middle or senior-leadership post advertised as being part time or the possibility of a job share offered. Indeed, the general perception is that leadership roles and part-time hours are incompatible.

Women losing out on leadership

Overwhelmingly, a lack of part-time leadership positions affects women more. A key reason that we don’t have more female school leaders is that the system is not flexible enough to accommodate a wish to be a mother and a school leader.

But the implications of a reluctance to accommodate part-time work in leadership positions are broader: it curtails supply at a time when we need more leaders than ever, and it means we are shunning an option that could solve many of the issues around burnout and retention in school leadership positions.

I am lucky at my school. My colleagues don’t bat an eyelid at my Wednesday absence and while there has been the odd unavoidable commitment on a Wednesday, they respect my space and don’t disturb me unless it’s a genuine emergency. But having researched this area, it appears that the situation is quite different for the majority.

Less flexibile at the top

There’s a general feeling that a part-time option should be available in schools, but it seems that the opportunities for this option diminish with each step that teachers take up the management ladder.

In theory, the opposite should be true: it should actually be more practical for a senior leader to be part time than a mainscale teacher, as the teaching commitment is lower and the supposed nightmare of timetabling part-time classroom teachers therefore doesn’t apply. But many argue that management complexity actually increases with part-time staff.

There is a further point for the defence worth highlighting, too. Teachers today undoubtedly work in a culture of performativity and presenteeism, where the number of hours we put in is frequently equated to our level of commitment. Stress and burnout is rife – a fact that is regularly reported in this magazine – and the profession is experiencing a genuine crisis of recruitment and retention.

The answer to a crisis?

In such a culture, it is not surprising that part-time working should be frowned upon: there seems to
be a collective movement to drag us all down to ever longer hours and a growing belief that only with such hours can a job be done “properly”.

But it strikes me that offering part-time opportunities to teachers may well be part of the solution to this unsustainable situation. Rather than fearing part-time leaders, schools should be embracing them.

There is a clear link between wellbeing and effectiveness that dominates my research, and a teacher who is fulfilled in other areas – who feels that they are giving time to their family and their interests, as well as to their work – is likely to be more efficient and more effective in the classroom.

Not only this, but the sense of loyalty that an employer’s flexibility will instil in teachers by respecting their life outside school is worth a great deal – in schools that do so, staff retention is generally much higher.

With supply an issue, you increase the pool of teachers you have to pick from by offering part time, too. And, with schools facing a real-terms budget cut over the next Parliament, we’re also cheaper.

Overcoming the challenge

Is accommodating part-time leaders a challenge? Of course it is. But it’s not an insurmountable one – and the many benefits of overcoming it more than make up for the difficulties. We just need a willingness among the profession to make it work.

Will this happen? I hope so. We are missing out on so many gifted leaders, at a time when there is such a dearth of them, by not being more open to part-time options in leadership positions.

We are denying these teachers the chance to fulfil their own ambitions and – just as importantly – make an incredibly valuable contribution to helping students and staff fulfil theirs, too.

This article is an edited version of Sense and Flexibility, a cover feature from TES Magazine in January 2016.  

Dr Emma Kell is a part-time head of department in London and a blogger at Those That Can...