When I first moved into headship, I worked with an amazing supply teacher. She was committed, talented, and the students responded well to her. I wondered why she had chosen to do supply rather than accept a permanent position. When I asked, her answer took me by surprise.
“For two weeks every summer I work as an official at Wimbledon,” she explained. “No school would be flexible enough to give me the time off, so I just do supply.”
We are hearing more and more about flexible working in education – it was heartening to see that the Department for Education recently held a flexible-working summit – but many schools have yet to catch up.
But nothing is going to change unless senior leaders, multi-academy trusts (MATs) and governing bodies fully embrace flexible working. It’s down to us. So what should school leaders be doing to support flexible working, beyond genuinely considering requests when they come our way?
1. Identify the demand
First, let’s remember that flexible-working patterns should be a solution for all – for men and women; for parents and those without children; for colleagues fresh to the profession, as well as lifers; for support staff, teachers, middle leaders and even senior leaders.
And let’s recognise that the demand is there, but has often been silenced. Sadly, workers often assume that requests will be turned down, so they don’t even ask. This can be true in particular for those in more senior positions. One of my senior leaders was cautious about asking to go from four days a week to three because other, older senior leaders had been told, by a previous head, that senior leaders could never be part-time. Their resentment lingered and the myth persisted. Regardless of what I said to the contrary and how often I said it, years of conditioning meant it wasn’t always believed.
2. Ensure the request is not just a workload ‘fix’
Heads need to be clear that flexible working should definitely not mean reducing paid hours to free up time for planning, marking and data crunching. That is patently absurd, yet I can think of three colleagues in three different schools who have all requested to go to four days a week to enable them to get all their marking out of the way, freeing up evenings and weekends for family.
How has the profession got into this pickle? Heads should urgently rethink workload and working practices in their schools; if the job can’t be done in eight hours a day, it can’t be done.
Where a member of staff is requesting to go part-time to get on top of school admin, it is the head’s responsibility to instead look at ways of making that individual’s workload more manageable.
3. Recognise the benefits
Headteachers, senior leaders, MAT CEOs and governors simply have to acknowledge that the retention of great staff has to be a priority – and that adopting flexible working practices is essential to achieve this.
I know a primary teacher who was not allowed to return to either her Year 6 class or her teaching and learning responsibility (TLR) after maternity leave. The head did not want a Year 6 class to have job-share teachers (what would the parents say?) and felt that the teacher couldn’t lead any area of the school if she was not present every day.
But we must reassure parents, particularly in primary schools, that having two teachers does not put a class at a disadvantage.
Two motivated, happy, fulfilled teachers are far better than one overworked, tired and resentful one. It has to become normal practice in schools.
And it should never cross a headteacher’s mind to only allow part-time working if the member of staff gives up their TLR; this makes little sense at all.
4. Do the research: flexibility works
Flexible arrangements can and do work. Let me give you an example. I once employed a Year 5 teacher who had a TLR for leading primary maths. After her maternity leave, she wanted to return for three days a week. To accommodate this, I paired her with a brilliant Teach First teacher, which meant we didn’t need to employ an extra staff member.
The Teach First staffer learnt from the best – and is now on her way to becoming one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen. We were also able to provide the TLR as a job share. The Year 5 teacher kept it for the three days she worked, while a less experienced teacher took on the two-day equivalent. So that was three members of staff kept happy and retained.
Of course, you do need some genius timetabling to pull this off. I was lucky because I had someone who was great at this (indeed, she may have been using witchcraft to make it fit). But when the alternative means losing your best staff to schools that can make it work, finding a way to accommodate a two-week stint at Wimbledon doesn’t seem quite so outlandish after all.
Keziah is co-founder and national leader for #WomenEd. She is a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable and an experienced school leader. She tweets at @keziah70