Ed Dorrell

A little flexibility could go a long way in improving the profession

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They say – although this is one of these “facts” that loses credibility the more it’s repeated – that the youth of today will have as many as 15 careers during their working lives.

While this insight changes depending on which crystal ball-gazing futurologist you consult, what is undeniable is that the labour market in this country is gaining fluidity almost by the day.

The internet revolution is driving a change in our professional lives: more flexible working, more remote working, more “portfolio careers”.

It is in this cultural shift that we might begin to see the beginnings of a solution to the recruitment and retention crisis.

That there is a crisis should not be in doubt. The profession is desperately short in headcount: it’s struggling to recruit new teachers and then haemorrhaging them at various points once they’re in the job.

Why? Well it’s not a lack of professional satisfaction (58 per cent are satisfied by their work) and it shouldn’t be a lack of professional admiration (the profession is third only to doctors and nurses in the nation’s hearts).

OK, I can hear all of you shouting “workload” at me, and almost all of you shouting “pay”. Many, too, will be shouting “professional autonomy”.

Setting to one side the remuneration issue (it’s evidently true that teachers deserve a pay rise and you don’t need me to tell you why), let’s look at the other two. It’s here that it’s worth thinking about how teachers work and when they join the profession.

This week, Teach First chief executive Russell Hobby set out plans to radically overhaul his organisation. Included in his blueprint is an interesting idea for recruiting successful grown ups from other sectors who want a new challenge and to move out of the cities. Teach First will put them on the fast track to the classroom and then place them in the towns and rural communities that have been hit hardest by the teacher supply drought.

I could be wrong, but I feel sure these kind of people will want flexible working, professional autonomy and to be treated as adults. It is to be hoped they will have the confidence to resist some of the ridiculous demands too often placed on teachers: they may even take some of their new colleagues with them.

Last Thursday, I chaired an event organised by thinktank LKMco on new ways of working. Time and again, the panellists and the audience – almost all teachers and school leaders – argued that there were very few practical reasons to stop schools introducing flexible and part-time working, especially with the advent of timetabling software and videoconferencing. Instead, it was the culture in schools, driven by heads fearful of the current accountability regime, that still made it very hard to achieve.

But what a reward it would be if such a shift were to happen. It would surely both increase the likelihood of attracting back some of the hundreds of thousands who have fled the profession while also reducing the rush towards the exit, especially among those who currently find teaching and parenthood incompatible.

Returners want flexible working, potential quitters want flexible working and I’d bet you a penny for a pound that most potential job changers want flexible working. Similarly, all three groups will want the professional autonomy required to say no to stupid initiatives or work-creating bureaucracy.

But when Hobby told Tes on Monday that there was little government could directly do about such issues, he was right. Indeed, ministers, who are on the cusp of publishing their long-awaited recruitment and retention strategy, have become increasingly aware they have very few levers to pull.

In truth, it’s up to teachers and their organisations (the unions; the grassroots movements such as WomenEd; the College of Teaching) to work this culture shift out for themselves. That will be the tough bit.