Tale of two Misses

21st March 2008 at 00:00

Whether it's about finding more time for your own children or winding down to retirement, part-time working is here to stay. Biddy Passmore reports

When Archie Jacklin, 7, goes into school on Mondays and Tuesdays, he is greeted by a curly-haired teacher with unconventional clothes and a friendly smile who has just got off her bike. On Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, he finds a smarter, more executive-looking figure, wearing pearls. She has travelled to school in a posh car. Together, these two apparently quite different women constitute his classroom teacher.

Does Archie mind having two teachers rather than one? No, says his mother Cecile. He's just as keen to go to school on Monday as he is on Wednesday. "He runs into school in the morning and runs out again at the end of the day with a smile on his face," she says. "The two teachers get on well and there's no conflict or contradiction in the way they approach things. And Archie's hypersensitive - he would notice."

Archie is not the only member of the family to have more than one classroom teacher. Esther, his younger sister who is in reception, has one teacher four days a week and another on Fridays.

Caldecote, a fast-growing primary in rural Cambridgeshire, is unusually rich in class-sharing teachers, But the experience of Archie and Esther is becoming more common by the day, as more primary teachers opt to go part- time.

The figure has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, from 14,800 to 26,400 in England alone. And the right of employees with young children to request flexible working, introduced in 2003, has accelerated the trend. Of course, not all part-time primary teachers are mothers of young children and by no means all are sharing a class. As Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, points out, part- timers can be given the discrete job of covering for other teachers' planning, preparation and assessment time.

Or one member of staff can teach core subjects in the morning, with another taking on foundation subjects such as sport and humanities in the afternoon, avoiding the need for an overlap. This was the case in Sherwood Junior in Nottingham, his old school.

Then there are the older ones who want to share either a class or a headship towards the end of their career. "The energy needed to stay on top of a class of 30 children does tend to ebb in one's fifties," says Mick Brookes.

But, more often than not, it's the birth of a teacher's first child that will prompt them to pursue the part-time option, so that they can balance time spent looking after other people's children with time spent caring for their own.

Heads are now legally obliged to consider requests from staff to work on a flexible basis where they have a child under six or a disabled child under 18, and can only refuse for a good reason. But some are keener than others to allow primary teachers to share a class.

As Mick Brookes says, two part-time teachers sharing a class can be more expensive than one full-time teacher because they should ideally have an "overlap", when they can catch up and attend parent and staff meetings.

Some primary heads are reluctant to let part-timers share a class, either because they consider it unfair to pupils or because they say parents dislike it.

But several heads with successful class-sharing arrangements told The TES Magazine that, while the idea had been greeted with parental suspicion, this had crumbled when children had adapted quite happily.

However, Margaret Morrissey, press officer of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations (NCPTA), sounded a note of caution. "There will always be cases where it works superbly," she says. "However, job- sharing can be difficult.

"Last year, at a primary school here in Dorset, there was one Year 4 teacher who was absolutely excellent and another who was just OK. Nobody complained because she was a lovely person, but the children got bored and missed out, just before transfer to middle school.

"Class sharing needs to be tightly monitored by senior management, who should discuss with the parents whether it's working and check how it's affecting the children. I understand it can't always be avoided but, ideally, if it doesn't have to happen in primaries, it shouldn't."

She says that expecting children as young as five to get used to two teachers was "a big ask". (Higher up the school, some variety is recognised as good preparation for secondary school.)

Claire Patton, head of Maybury Primary School in a deprived part of Hull, says the disruption caused by teachers in a stable staffroom sharing a class was nothing compared to that caused by frequently changing supply teachers in former years.

But some heads who are strongly in favour of part-time primary teachers, and even support teachers sharing a class, are against formal job-sharing arrangements.

John Peck, a part-time head of the 400-pupil Peafield Lane Primary in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, says that job-share contracts tie up teachers and posts in an inflexible way.

"The problem is, you're often stuck with it," he says. "If one party leaves, you can only advertise half a vacancy. That almost always precludes an NQT. You may get only one or two applicants, invariably from someone at the top of the scale."

"I'm certainly not opposed to people going part-time," he says. "After 20 years as a full-time head, I've done it myself and I've got several part- timers on the staff. It's good for teachers to be able to spend more time with their family or to wind down towards retirement. It works brilliantly and gives the school greater flexibility."

Will the number of part-time teachers continue to grow at the present rate? Professor John Howson, The TES Magazine's careers expert, thinks it may soon level off. He predicts that the effect of a younger teaching force (more babies, more flexible working arrangements), is likely to be offset by the rise in pupil numbers, which will encourage heads to recruit full-time teachers where they can.

"When school rolls are rising, it's better value to recruit a newly qualified teacher for five days a week for pound;22,000 than a more experienced teacher three days a week for pound;30,000," he says.

Nonetheless, a substantial minority of primary teachers seeking a better work-life balance through part-time work is here to stay. Many of them will be sharing responsibility for a class.

And that, it seems, despite some parents' instinctive reservations, can work well. As ever, it all depends on the people involved, how well they liaise and how well they are supported by senior management. "For the sake of the children, it's got to be seamless," says Mick Brookes.

At its best, as Rod Warsap of Caldecote Primary says, the arrangement represents nothing but gain for the school. "I'd be more concerned about an individual full-time teacher who wasn't much good than about two very good ones sharing," he says. It's hard to argue with that.

Sharing a similar approach

"I can't imagine working full-time with a baby," says Susannah Beadle. "But neither would we be able to pay the mortgage if I didn't work."

Susannah, 33, shares the reception class at The Lawn Primary, a 400-pupil school in Derby. She has worked part-time since she returned last September after the birth of her son Sebastian.

Her fellow job-sharer, a mother of teenage children, works from Monday to Wednesday. Susannah works from Wednesday lunchtime to the end of school on Friday.

On Wednesday afternoons, the two teachers overlap. One does her planning and preparation while the other teaches. After school, they compare notes and hand over.

Their essential management tool is a large, pink, hardback book. In it they write everything important, from details of school management, to problems with pupils, to changes of plan.

What about the pupils? Do they seem worried by switching from one teacher to another? "Some of the children do like clarification - they come in and say: `Is it you today, Mrs Beadle?' or `Who is it tomorrow?' But I think they just want to know.

"Both of us taught the first full school week together last September. I think that helped parents and children to feel settled with the situation," she adds.

Each takes one of the two parents' evenings per term. But Susannah does not attend staff meetings, which tend to fall early in the week.

The two teachers knew each other but were not friends before they started sharing the class last September.

"It's fortunate that we get on and have a similar approach to teaching and learning and family life," says Susannah. "I know some job shares are a complete nightmare, where teachers just don't see eye to eye."

From mentor to job-share partner

Unity of approach characterises the shared classroom teaching of Diane Kingdon and Katie Kendall at Caldecote Primary.

Both are busy mothers; neither started her career as a teacher. Diane had spent 25 years in the City before deciding, after her third child was born, that she had had enough of seeing her children only once they were in bed.

Katie Kendall is a former hospital doctor and GP who had stopped work to look after her four children. Both discovered a love of teaching by becoming involved with their children's primary school.

They met when Diane, a rapidly promoted teacher at Meridian Primary in Comberton, became mentor to Katie, an NQT. When Diane dropped down to four days a week, she asked Katie to fill in on the fifth day. The two hit it off and the arrangement worked well.

So when, a year or two later, Diane found herself deputy head and classroom teacher (and special needs, numeracy and gifted and talented co- ordinator) at Caldecote Primary, she was delighted when Katie was appointed to share the teaching of Year 2.

Now, Diane works as deputy head on Monday and Tuesday, and takes over Year 2 from Wednesday to Friday. Katie teaches Year 2 on the first two days of the week.

Diane is paid as a full-time deputy head, while Katie is paid two-fifths of a main scale teacher's salary.

Rod Warsap, the head, says the school gets good value. He says he pays the two teachers the equivalent of one full-time post for the classroom teaching, with two days on top for Diane as deputy head.

"I'm getting two good quality teachers," he says, "who are obviously less stressed than if they were both working a full five days in the classroom. And I get one who can deal with issues across the school two days a week, which means I can cope."

How do they organise it? They split responsibility for the curriculum - Diane does numeracy, Katie literacy - and the pair email and telephone every day.

"The phone bill is high," says Katie, "but we have similar age children and know when to call. In the holidays, we meet as families and have an informal planning session."

Staff meetings are always on Tuesdays, when both are in school.

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