Last Friday – why is it always Fridays? – the Department for Education published a raft of new documents on its website for us all to enjoy over the weekend. The documents included a telling combination of findings from the department’s workload survey and materials to promote the value of flexible working opportunities. One can’t help but wonder whether anyone at the DfE recognised the irony.
First, to workload. I’ve said before that we cannot lay all the blame at the door of the DfE. Certainly, constant changes to curriculum and assessment in recent years haven’t helped matters, but in reality much of the workload we see in schools is driven by school leaders: often the sort of school leaders who blame Ofsted while doing nothing to heed the inspectorate’s messages about its expectations.
Nevertheless, the department has its part to play, and we must hold it to account for that. But as Ofsted goes out of its way to be an open and honest organisation, speaking clearly about what it doesn’t expect from schools, we should now expect the same from the various agencies of the DfE. In particular, regional schools’ commissioners must be kept “on message” when it comes to demanding data from academies and schools, including those which have been classified as “coasting”. Setting aside the madness of any schools being judged after last year’s debacles in assessment, RSCs must make sure that their need for accountability from a distance doesn’t add to the burden of data and workload in schools.
We need to be realistic
Which brings me to the other topic: flexible working. I’m largely in favour of flexible working arrangements. I’ve seen job-share arrangements work where the children have got the benefit of more subject specialist expertise than they ever could from a full-timer. I’ve seen part-time hours allow teachers to enjoy the opportunities of parenthood, while also maintaining a fulfilling work life. Allowing flexible working can be a boon for both teachers and schools.
That said, the department has some strange ideas about how flexible working might work. One of its proposals is “working full-time hours but over fewer days”. I’m not sure quite how it imagines that applying in school. Perhaps I should tell my class that from next term we’re having Friday’s lessons on Monday afternoons, and they won’t go home until 10.30pm?
Inevitably, the most common form of flexible working is a part-time role. However, we also need to be realistic about this.
Part-time work shouldn’t be the only way of keeping the job manageable
Too many teachers are taking part-time hours not because of the freedom it gives them in the rest of their lives, but because of the impossibility of managing the demands of a full-time working week. There are too many stories of teachers who work full-time hours but in return now for only part-time pay. Paying teachers for fewer of the hours that they work cannot be a solution to either the workload or recruitment challenges.
It may be just a coincidence that both sets of documents were published on Friday. It’s certainly true that tackling workload remains a pressing issue, and I am wholly in support of the DfE supporting schools with guidance on flexible working arrangements. But we cannot imagine that one will solve the other.
Part-time work can be great for teachers who want it, but it shouldn’t be the only way of keeping the job manageable for the rest of us.
Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire @MichaelT1979