Why is the vast pool of part-timers untapped?

28th November 1997 at 00:00
What is to be done about the staffing shortage? Kathryn Riley advocates a sea-change in society's attitude to the job, while Sue Purkiss, (below), suggests we should make use of a group of professionals long overlooked.

Margaret Hodge, MP, chair of the Commons education and employment select committee, pointed out in a recent article in The TES the need for radical solutions to increase the number and quality of graduates entering teaching.

She discusses the options - changing the career structure so that good classroom teachers are rewarded (always a thorny one - what do you say to the others? "Well, sorry, but you're not really that good in the classroom - still, your paperwork's great, carry on"), identifying and rewarding "high-fliers" with a fast track to headship (collect Prozac and zoom straight to Go), rewarding good teachers by giving them a sabbatical, and making it cheaper for schools to employ mature late entrants.

She also suggests that raising the minimum A-level point score for entrants into teaching would increase standards and attract better applicants. Not without the lure of better rewards, it wouldn't. Perhaps there are brilliant A-level students out there who select a profession by heading for the one with the most demanding entry requirements, but I've yet to meet any of them.

There is, however, a daring option which she fails to explore: there does exist a pool of people out there who are trained, experienced teachers; who have finely honed skills in time management, organisation of themselves and others, and who are available for work. These people have often already had a break from teaching, so that they have had, as Ms Hodge puts it, "a chance to renew their energy and develop their skills".

So why are these people not being used? Why are they regarded as at best a convenience, and at worst a nuisance?

Because they are people, often women, who may have taken time out to raise a family, and who wish to return to work - but not full-time.

Schools often regard part-timers as people who are not really serious about their jobs. I worked part-time at the same school for seven years and, despite protestations about how highly my work was valued, nearly lost my job twice: the first time because the school appointed a year head who happened to teach my subject and therefore needed my timetable, and the second time because of the cuts - ironically, this was just after European Union legislation protecting the employment rights of part-timers had come into force.

What struck me was that no one within education seemed to regard this as being at all untoward. I was a part-timer and really had to expect such treatment. My indignation was regarded with the sort of sympathetic condescension usually accorded to the simple-minded.

And yet there must be thousands of trained teachers who, like me, enjoy teaching, but do not feel that doing it full-time is compatible with looking after a family - and staying sane. I know and admire people who combine the first two; I have not met many who convincingly manage all three. I also know a number of full-timers with families who say wistfully that they are sure they would be much happier if they could reduce their hours.

Part-timers have more energy - and time - to give to the job, and will usually do more in proportion to the time they are paid for. It is well documented that teachers have more to do now than ever before: they can only manage so much.

Teachers with families will go to superhuman lengths to do their jobs properly, and they somehow still manage to do some extras, but it is much easier to find the time to organise trips and other extras if you are part-time. When I was working in school, I produced a school magazine, organised trips, was a teacher governor, helped to organise a schools arts festival and did the publicity for school plays. I thoroughly enjoyed doing all these things, and I think they benefited the students: I would not have been able to do them had I been teaching a full timetable.

Nor would I have been able to give my own children the time and energy they need. My timetable crept up - this happens, because schools are uneasy until they have metamorphosed their dowdy part-timers into glittering full-timers - and I began to find that not only did I not have time to help my children with their homework and other essentials: I sometimes didn't even have the time to talk to them or read to them. Or I did these things, but with half an eye on the clock.

The arguments in favour of part-time working and job-sharing are strong. Other professions have seen the advantages of retaining a ready-trained work-force, and have had the flexibility and imagination to find solutions to the problems thrown up by different working patterns. Job-sharing exists in the social services, in hospitals, in the legal profession and in business.

There are problems with job-sharing in teaching - particularly in secondary schools. Tutor groups have to be shared. Timetabling can be difficult. Good communication is of central importance. But with will, imagination, and determination from the top, these problems could be solved: in recent years the unthinkable has frequently become accepted practice, in schools as elsewhere. And the rewards would be immense - the alleviation of the recruitment problem and the released potential of a large reservoir of expensively trained, under-used individuals.

Thanks to the European Union, part-timers now have the same employment rights as full-timers if they work above a certain number of hours for two years. But schools still see part-timers as second-class citizens. A member of the senior management team once said that they are rather like cement; their hours can be expanded to fill in the gaps if necessary, and be squeezed out completely if convenient.

So perhaps Ms Hodge could look again at her list of solutions to the recruitment problem. Schools have nothing to lose but an old prejudice - and a great deal to gain.

Sue Purkiss is a part-time teacher and freelance writer

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