Sense and flexibility

1st January 2016 at 00:00
Could part-time contracts for leadership positions solve recruitment and wellbeing issues in one fell swoop? Emma Kell thinks so

It’s 9.45 on Wednesday morning and, despite being a department head at my school, I am still sat at home. I don’t have to worry about lesson planning, or marking or the development plan. I don’t have to manage a whole team of teachers or large groups of students. I don’t have to attend that after-school meeting that always drags on a little longer than it should. Today, I am not working. Because, as of September this year, I negotiated a part-time role for myself as a middle leader in a North London school, in order to devote myself to completing my doctoral studies.

I consider myself extremely lucky. In my 20 years of teaching and my extensive contact with teachers and leaders through educational networks, I have known very few middle or senior leaders to be part time. I am also yet to see a middle- or senior-leadership post advertised as being part time or the possibility of a job share offered. Indeed, the general perception is that leadership roles and part-time hours are incompatible.

Overwhelmingly, this affects women more. A key reason that we don’t have more female school leaders is that the system is not flexible enough to accommodate a wish to be a mother and a school leader. But the implications of a reluctance to accommodate part-time work in leadership positions are broader: it curtails supply at a time when we need more leaders than ever, and it means we are shunning an option that could solve many of the issues around burnout and retention in school leadership positions.

So why is education so scared of part-time leaders?

Before going part time, I had spent four terms in a full-time senior leadership position, which meant pushing my work-life balance to the absolute boundaries of the tolerable, putting excessive strain on those who love me and forcing me into frequent treacherous car journeys home to try to make my children’s bedtime. I enjoyed many elements of the whole-school responsibility, but the cost was too great.

My current situation works much better; it has allowed me to readdress my work-life balance and given me more time to focus on my own family. But there’s a sense of temporality and transience about the whole scenario.

Firstly, I’m working outside my modern foreign language (MFL) specialism: I am currently a middle leader, leading the English department. While swotting up on Julius Caesar provided a whole new exciting level of challenge, I do rather miss my French irregular verbs and my flashcards. This situation was a result of there being no obvious part-time middle leadership roles relevant to my specialism: I had to take what I could get to work the hours I desired.

Secondly, though there are moments when I question my sanity, there’s an itch to return to senior leadership and follow some of those who have inspired me by pursuing a path to headship. I want that sense of being part of the bigger, whole-school picture; of knowing the names, strengths and foibles of every staff member in the school; of formulating a vision and leading change for the better. I want to progress professionally.

Finally, because my situation is so unusual, there’s a persistent sense of it being too good to be true.

Changing perceptions

According to the DfE’s 2014 School Workforce survey (the most recent official source on teacher numbers), there are 3,400 part-time, FTE-qualified leadership roles in state-funded schools in England (calculated as a proportion of the full-time hours that part-time leadership teachers have worked). That’s compared with 20,800 full-time qualified headteachers, 18,000 full-time qualified deputy heads and 23,700 full-time qualified assistant heads.

How many of those part-time leaders feel as I do? How many full-time leaders would want to go part time? And how many would-be leaders are put off promotion because opportunities for part-time work are so scarce? There are no statistics to answer any of these questions, but anecdotally there’s one obvious response: more than you would think.

That fact became clear to me recently, when I attended WomenEd – a conference focussing on women in education. I took part in a seminar on part-time teaching, in which the perceptions of leadership being a no-go area for part-time staff dominated the discussion.

While there were an extremely fortunate few – including a head of school with young children who was working on a job-share, and a timetabler who swore that timetabling for part timers wasn’t nearly as tricky as some might claim – there was a note of frustration, sometimes bordering on bitterness, in the room. There was a prevailing sense of being undervalued as part timers, of missing out on opportunities for promotion and of being seen as less committed than full-time colleagues. We’ve all heard the half-joking charge of “you part timer” with all its implications of half-heartedness and lack of professionalism.

I am lucky at my school. My colleagues don’t bat an eyelid at my Wednesday absence and while there has been the odd unavoidable commitment on a Wednesday, they respect my space and don’t disturb me unless it’s a genuine emergency.

But having researched this area, it appears that the situation is quite different for the majority. Many feel the need to justify their day off every week by assuring people of just how much they are achieving, to prove that they are not actually nipping off for a pedicure and a bit of Pilates. But if they were doing these things, or preparing for a marathon, or going on school trips with their children, or practicing their cooking skills or learning to windsurf, would it really be anybody’s business? There should be no reason to be part time that is more “valid” than any other. But perceptions to the contrary damage chances of part-time leadership being offered.

The discrimination against part-time work is shown to be even more unfair when you talk to those few school leaders who are working part time. It is clear from my own experience and theirs that part-time leadership can and does work, both for the person doing it and the school. So if the desire for part-time leaders is there and it can be a success, why aren’t more schools open to the idea?

Practicality knocks

As part of research on parenthood and teaching that I am conducting on my “day off”, I sent out a questionnaire – to which 1,603 parent-teachers in UK-maintained schools responded. The findings on part-time work were striking. Women are far more likely to work part time, with 33 per cent of respondents on part-time hours, compared to just 9 per cent of men. Significantly, 87 per cent of respondents feel that teachers should have the opportunity to go part time at key points in their career, such as the transition to parenthood.

There’s a general feeling that a part-time option should be available in schools, but it seems that the opportunities for this option diminish with each step that teachers take up the management ladder.

In theory, the opposite should be true: it should actually be more practical for a senior leader to be part time than a mainscale teacher, as the teaching commitment is lower and the supposed nightmare of timetabling part-time classroom teachers therefore doesn’t apply. But many argue that management complexity actually increases with part-time staff, for three key reasons:

1. Not everyone can be part time. A leadership team needs a balance of personalities but it can’t run with every member being part time. That means being selective about who gets to work part time, which could potentially trigger stress, anger and even an official complaint.

2. The “day off” is never actually a day off. The demands of a leadership position require a full-time on-call role – a day off essentially becomes an unpaid work day and thus pointless. One headteacher told me that this was his major concern. For the model to work, the contribution to school life made by the part timer must be proportionate, and this can be extremely tricky to negotiate, especially with whole-school responsibilities such as teaching and learning.

3. There would be a negative impact on students. A leader needs to be there for both students and teachers whenever they are required – be it questions about learning or urgent pastoral concerns. Part-time workers cannot fulfil that duty.

In answer to the first point, we can safely assume that not everyone wants part-time hours, and that the current first-come, first-served option seems to work OK for classroom teachers, so why not for leaders?

In answer to the second point, admittedly I have not yet had a day off that’s been free of contact with school. Parental contact and urgent issues need to be resolved, as do problems around curriculum and assessment. But while work can so easily leak into our days off, with “ruthless compartmentalisation” (to borrow a phrase from TES columnist Tom Bennett) and proper planning, this can and must be avoided. It is a challenge that I am still getting to grips with, but it is not impossible.

Thirdly, on the consistency point, we know that students benefit from the expertise of – and relationships with – contrasting teachers. Over-reliance on one member of staff is dangerous. If a matter is indeed urgent then systems can be put in place for the part-time leader to be contacted on their day off. But if they have done their job properly, with systems in place for unpredictable situations and proper communication on the days they do work, these urgent enquiries should be few and far between.

There is a further point for the defence worth highlighting, too. Teachers today undoubtedly work in a culture of performativity and presenteeism, where the number of hours we put in is frequently equated to our level of commitment. Stress and burnout is rife – a fact that is regularly reported in this magazine – and the profession is experiencing a genuine crisis of recruitment and retention.

In such a culture, it is not surprising that part-time working should be frowned upon: there seems to be a collective movement to drag us all down to ever longer hours and a growing belief that only with such hours can a job be done “properly”.

But it strikes me that offering part-time opportunities to teachers may well be part of the solution to this unsustainable situation. Rather than fearing part-time leaders, schools should be embracing them.

There is a clear link between wellbeing and effectiveness that dominates my research, and a teacher who is fulfilled in other areas – who feels that they are giving time to their family and their interests, as well as to their work – is likely to be more efficient and more effective in the classroom.

Not only this, but the sense of loyalty that an employer’s flexibility will instil in teachers by respecting their life outside school is worth a great deal – in schools that do so, staff retention is generally much higher. With supply an issue, you increase the pool of teachers you have to pick from by offering part time, too. And, with schools facing a real-terms budget cut over the next Parliament, we’re also cheaper.

Is accommodating part-time leaders a challenge? Of course it is. But it’s not an insurmountable one – and the many benefits of overcoming it more than make up for the difficulties. We just need a willingness among the profession to make it work.

Will this happen? I hope so. We are missing out on so many gifted leaders, at a time when there is such a dearth of them, by not being more open to part-time options in leadership positions.

We are denying these teachers the chance to fulfil their own ambitions and – just as importantly – make an incredibly valuable contribution to helping students and staff fulfil theirs, too.

Emma Kell is a part-time head of department in London and is completing an education-related PhD. She blogs at @thosethatcan

The employer’s view

Senior leaders are not created overnight. They have spent years in the classroom and in professional development, gaining experience in a range of areas. To progress to senior leadership they also need to have delivered the goods as a middle leader – one of the hardest roles in a school. Great senior leaders are the result of investments by many different people and institutions – so I have absolutely no idea why anyone would prefer to lose such a colleague rather than simply find a more flexible way of working.

Part-time senior leaders can work really well – I am fortunate to have a part-time assistant headteacher as part of my own senior team. When the only alternative is not having her – and trying to find a replacement – it’s a no-brainer to be honest.

Keziah Featherstone is head of the Bridge Learning Campus

The part-time headteacher

I think there are real benefits to being a part-time head (I work four days a week, including my role as director for primary at Future Leaders). For our school, this came about following the birth of my two children, and wanting to find a structure and approach that allowed me to find more of a balance between being a head and being a mummy. We created a co-headship, and I now share the role with Nicola Noble, who also works a four-day week.

The benefits are clear both for me personally and for the school. It has empowered another leader to step up into headship, but in a supportive way, and allows me to genuinely enjoy time with my young family. The power of having two heads is huge – it is an incredibly steady and resilient structure, which is so important given the challenges of running a complex urban school.

Two sets of ideas and energy contribute to a powerful partnership, and it allows us to genuinely model a collaborative approach to leadership.

There are challenges of course – how to stay in touch, who does what, who is responsible, how to switch off. These are just some of the major issues that my co-headteacher and I have worked through – and still have to think about. For us, the key has always been clear communication and the ability to talk about challenges when they arise.

I think it is really important for more schools to think about how they can support and facilitate flexible working. It is particularly obvious for women who choose to have children, but is also an issue more widely.

For example, we have managed to retain a really expert teacher by allowing him to work part time so that he can also pursue his other interests. We have a number of key staff who work part time, in both senior and middle management, and find that the dedication we get back in response to our flexible approach makes it more than worthwhile.

Liz Robinson is headteacher at Surrey Square Primary School, pictured feeding her daughter Alys during a coffee break at a conference at which she was presenting.

The part-time senior leader

I became part time after the birth of my second child. I was the head of English at a comprehensive school and I negotiated a Wednesday off. I always thought that I was lucky, but I think that the headteacher and the school got a very good deal, too.

When I applied for promotion at a new school as an associate member of the senior leadership team, I got the job despite wanting to stay part time. I was appointed as a lead practitioner, a director of teaching and learning with whole-school responsibility for literacy and numeracy.

I work the hours of four days spread over five days. This means that I am able to take my children to school on two mornings and pick them up from school on two afternoons. It benefits my children (and there aren’t many benefits being the child of a teacher) and it gives me one hour at home on my own once a week.

There is still a huge amount of juggling to do, and being part time only gives you a whisker of breathing space. During term time the job always seems to come first, and I think that is hard on your own children. Marking and working every night certainly means that your mind is not always on them, and as a senior examiner and moderator I am pulled in other directions, too. Life operates on a very tight rein in term time and you have to be on top of everything.

But I love my job and enjoy being on the leadership team in a great school. I was lucky to find a part-time post (although most of the time it doesn’t feel part time). I don’t think that there are enough opportunities like mine.

The writer wishes to remain anonymous

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