In spite of the rapid increase in recruits to teacher training, the Department for Education is still concerned about long-term staffing of the system. This time it has focused on making work more flexible and employee-friendly.
There must be a reason why only 26 per cent of female teachers work part-time, compared with 42 per cent of women in the workforce nationally, and fewer men (only around 8.6 per cent, compared with 13 per cent).
These statistics might lay the blame at the door of a system that cannot accommodate more varied working patterns, which makes the launch of the £480,000 flexible-working initiative seem very timely.
The goal to “help to recruit, retain and motivate teachers” trips easily off the tongue. But will it really help to address the larger problem of excessive levels of work-related stress besetting the profession, as reported in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development survey?
Flexible working for teachers: A response to Covid
From a management perspective, it’s easy to see what’s to be gained from a more flexible workforce. It used to mean that teachers were expected to roll up their sleeves and step into the breach at short notice. These days, it encompasses a more adaptable staffing arrangement, to enable the head to assign duties at shorter notice or adjust working hours to suit local circumstances.
The pandemic has thrown schools into a constant state of flux. They have had to move on- and off-line. The crisis has also dumped new duties on schools in terms of the supervision of Covid-related tasks that really have no link with education. Just think how unsustainably flexible teachers have become in just one year.
Routinely, heads have to manage surges in pupil numbers and sharp declines, because of shifting population movement and birth rates. The Covid crisis has plunged school budgets into the red, which will impact on the staffing they can afford. There may be no choice but to usher in more fluid working patterns – but not in the right way and not for the right reasons.
Just occasionally, a lighter timetable might keep an experienced professional in the school when they undergo health problems or changes in their personal lives. Later on, they might return to full-time responsibilities.
What heads will need to avoid most of all is costly supply cover, which is perhaps the biggest incentive to keep part-time hours as flexible as possible. Therefore, working arrangements that can be revisited annually allow the organisation to add or subtract a certain number of hours – or issue new contracts if more radical change is necessary.
It's one reason why employees should be very cautious before moving away from a full-time arrangement. And even more cautious about embracing flexibility per se.
The ultimate, of course, is the zero-hours contract. And the short-term contracts that afflict HE lecturers are an evil to be avoided. For teachers, there is nothing attractive in being completely at the school’s disposal when it doesn’t work in your favour.
Breaking out of the straitjacket of full-time teaching
However, we all have lives that throw up inconvenient problems, some of which can be planned for – and others that can’t. The working generation sandwiched between childcare and eldercare may need more flexible core hours.
There are many other reasons to break out of the straitjacket that constitutes normal full-time teaching. Combining flexible working with study for a higher degree is the ideal combination to make education research more relevant.
But what happens when the expected cut in contact time doesn’t actually deliver corresponding benefits at home, and the day off becomes a repository for all the tasks that couldn’t be completed in contracted hours? Then time for research may be the kind that requires candles to be burnt at both ends.
I’ve known teachers who were very happy with a job-share at primary level and in senior management. It works for a reason. In both situations, there is less subject specialism required: primary teachers are multidisciplined, especially in the early years, and senior leaders are more focused on the managerial responsibilities, which are fluid and so more easily split.
But they need focused, high-quality – paid – catch-up sessions each week. And are flexible managers prepared to fund that? Thanks to all our work on Teams, Zoom and Google Classroom, catching up has never been so easy to arrange. Travel time to attend on-site meetings is a thing of the past, and recording the interaction can avoid time-consuming writing of minutes or notes. Technology might just be a game-changer in this small corner of workload.
Ultimately, though, middle managers pick up most of the burden of making the mosaic of staffing work. They have to put in extra time even when catch-up meetings take place, troubleshooting, if necessary, to ensure that the curriculum has been fully covered.
In some academy trusts, the subject head writes all the schemes of work and lesson plans, so that classroom teachers just have to tweak content to suit their classes. Job-shares or class-shares are easier in this environment. But do teachers want to cut out the creative part of their job?
Otherwise, the complexity of subject teaching makes it very difficult to apportion, unless there is agreement on topics that are owned by each person, or there is a lot of joint planning, not to mention marking and tracking.
Allocation of invisible workload
Where job-sharing, part-time and other flexibilities have fallen down in the past is over the allocation of the invisible workload – the type that causes so much stress to the modern classroom practitioner:
When part-time timetables are paid by the proportion of lessons taught, who will take on the pastoral load that’s an integral part of the full-time job – and the endless bureaucracy of tracking progress, data entry and pastoral reports, email correspondence and attending parents’ evenings?
Even so, my part-time colleagues report that they have to use a disproportionate amount of unpaid time to fulfil their duties. And if they’re not ruthless, the job can become rather too fluid, seeping into the family and personal time they’ve sacrificed pay and future career advancement to protect.
The Department for Education’s programme won’t work if flexibility is the key focus. The participating schools must go much deeper into the problem – and that means tackling the quantity of work in tandem with the pattern of teaching hours.
It’s not the visible timetable that’s turning British teachers off, but the invisible hours of unproductive bureaucracy. Simply reconfiguring the existing excesses won’t make teaching any more enticing.
The pioneers of flexibility must drastically reduce unnecessary tasks and reconfigure the job into something more palatable. Perhaps the 3Rs of flexibility could be: reduce, reshape, retain.
Every teacher could benefit from that.
Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom, and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)