I’ve got a young family. I know how planning anything to do with children is a monumental exercise. But it’s one that every school has to master every day with staggering precision.
The school day is one of the wonders of modern time-management, and I am in awe of the timetable-setter responsible for arranging all those moving parts, so that they work like clockwork.
Getting Mr Banks in front of 8B in period three on a Thursday doesn’t happen by luck, but by painstaking planning.
While other areas of the economy are able to adapt to changing working patterns to suit personal circumstances, this can appear harder in education because you will always need Mr Banks, or someone like him, to take 8B for period three.
I know that there can be challenges with fitting flexible working patterns around fixed timetables. It surprises many people to hear that the incidence of part-time working is lower in teaching than in society as a whole.
Commitment to flexible working
But, back in January, when the DfE launched the recruitment and retention strategy, I made a clear commitment to seeing flexible working in schools increase.
It is a trend across different sectors. More people these days need to make work fit with caring responsibilities – whether for children or for your own parents.
Research published today from my department shows that more than three-quarters of school leaders reported that they had received a request for flexible working from a staff member in the past five years.
While it is pleasing to see that many senior leaders are, in fact, committed to flexible working and do try to accommodate these requests, the flip-side of this is that more than one-quarter reported to have actually rejected a request for flexible working in their school.
Those taking part in the survey included teachers across a range of ages and different types of schools. What the results suggest is that there is a clear disconnect between the numbers who wish to work flexibly, and the numbers able to do so.
A family-friendly profession
I’m committed to making sure that teaching remains a family-friendly profession, whether that is cutting down on workload for someone working full-time or ensuring that those who want to work flexibly have the opportunity to do so.
There are certain schools that lead the way in this area, such as King’s School in Winchester, where almost half the staff work part-time, and the school uses split classes to enable more teachers to do so. But this is not being done widely enough.
We know that the lack of flexible-working options can be a key factor for those teachers who have decided to quit the profession, either temporarily or on a more permanent basis.
In fact, among secondary-school teachers who leave the profession, the proportion working part-time increases by 20 per cent when taking up a new job.
A good start is to add “Ask about flexible-working options” on all job-vacancy ads.
We want to support schools to do more to implement flexible working and, earlier this month, we launched a competition for EdTech providers to show how technology can be used to improve workforce flexibility and timetabling for those who wish to work more flexibly.
Alongside part-time working, there is an important role for job-sharing. When you meet job-shares, most often they knew and worked alongside their job-share partner before they started the arrangement.
That works well for some, but obviously it isn’t going to be available to many workers. That’s why, at DfE, we’re working on a service that allows you to find a job-share partner. It’s a sort of match.com for job-shares.
The new norm
However, we cannot do this alone – and creating a culture that promotes flexible working ultimately comes down to headteachers, as they are the ones who can ensure this becomes the norm in teaching.
Where flexible working is in place, there have been reported benefits for a school, through retaining more experienced teachers who would otherwise leave their roles, and through improving staff wellbeing.
These benefits surely outweigh the barriers and challenges.
This is why I am encouraging all headteachers to make a firm commitment to start embedding a culture of flexible working in their schools.
And for those schools that want to start making a change, I would urge them as a first step to get in touch with a school that already has, and see how it can work in practice.
Flexible working should not be regarded as a perk or a nice thing to have. It is a modern way of working, which we should all be able to embrace.
Damian Hinds is the secretary of state for education