Together we can make it

If your life seems all work and no play, it may be time to share the load. Jill Parkin weighs the options.

Everybody believes that striking a balance between work and the rest of your life is a good thing - except your employer, right? Here in Britain, we work longer hours than the rest of Europe, and nine-to-five, once a cliche, became an anachronism years ago. If you read your weekend papers, you'll know less work and more free time are healthy and desirable. So how come every twentysomething you know seems to be working 247, and, like lunch, whingeing is for wimps?

In real life, there is more than work. Even the Government says so, but according to a report from the Institute for Employment Studies at Sussex University, take-up of practices that enhance work-life balance is considerably less than the demand. Sally Dench, one of the authors of Work-Life Balance: beyond the rhetoric, says: "Rights to time off and flexible working practices are rarely enough. A change in culture and attitudes within organisations is necessary. Individuals and their managers need support to overcome barriers. If senior managers are serious about promoting a healthy work-life balance, they need to take an active stance. It rarely happens without positive leadership."

In other words, there's a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. But what is the talk? The Government has put up money to encourage flexible working arrangements, which it says will benefit health, happiness and productivity. Two funds have been set up: the Challenge Fund (pound;4.8 million for the year starting in September), which pays consultants to work with employers to develop work-life balance strategies; and the Partnership Fund, which provides matched funding for specific workplace schemes. Work-Life Balance: beyond the rhetoric makes clear that although there's a "high latent demand" for a balanced approach to work and life, several factors stand in the way of take-up:

* Impact on earnings. The hard truth of less work is less money.

* Career prospects. Balancers are perceived as poor careerists.

* Bums on seats. Many places have an entrenched culture of long working hours.

* Lip service. Do the bosses really mean it?

* Ways and means. Employers often ask workers to come up with a detailed proposal;

* Trees and woods. Heavy workload can make it all seem impossible.

* Remote control. Mobile phones, email, and answerphones make escape seem impossible.

Is it possible to have a good work-life balance if you work full-time? As there are only so many hours in a day, there's a fine line between getting it right and doing it all in the exhausting style of superman or superwoman. Many of the workplace practices the Government wants to encourage, such as teleworking, shift-swapping and annualised hours, wouldn't work in teaching. But the one that most obviously does apply is job-sharing. Whether it's for childcare, spending time with an elderly relative, or making pottery, many teachers would like the chance to do it.

It can work well, as it does at Ditton Lodge first school, a primary in Newmarket, where two of the five classes are job-shared. In Year 4, Kate Ruttle works the first three days of the week, and Claire Turner the last two days. Staff meetings are alternate Mondays and Thursdays, with the agenda reflecting which sharers are working that day, although both teachers occasionally come to extra meetings. Subject areas are divided, with Ms Turner doing more creative work at the end of the week. Both attend parents' evenings.

Ms Ruttle is studying for a higher degree and does advisory work on literacy for the local education authority; Claire Turner is a textile artist who takes commissions. Kate Ruttle says: "The children are taught by two people teaching to their strengths, and with more energy and freshness. We also cover for each other if necessary. Last year, when one of my children had a tonsillectomy, Claire worked two of my days so I could be at the hospital."

Peter Rolfe has been head of Ditton Lodge for 25 years. Ten years ago he introduced the school's first job-share when he gave up his own half-week in the classroom. "My colleague was very science-based and the new teacher who came was very strong on literacy. That's one of the great advantages of job-sharing: you can get two people with complementary skills and they can spend their time teaching to their strengths.

"There's an energy advantage, too, in having someone come in fresh on a Thursday morning. There's less lesson planning to do, but it does need to be sharper. You can't simply think, 'Oh, we'll finish off at the end of the week.' It also cuts down on supply problems because often the other teacher can cover. That's good with the young children as it means they usually get someone they know. We also have a job-share in reception.

"The system creates a lot of goodwill. For example, we usually arrange staff meetings on alternate Mondays and Thursdays, but if it's an extra meeting, perhaps on school development, we will offer payment."

When Gillian Gardner was expecting her second baby she didn't want to continue working full-time. She answered a newspaper advertisement for a job-share at Longniddry primary school, near Edinburgh, where Sarah Boyd had just had a baby and wanted to go part-time; the school already had one successful job-share. Now Ms Boyd works Monday and Tuesday, Ms Gardner works Wednesday and Thursday and they do alternate Friday mornings (the pupils are not at school on Friday afternoons).

When two staff approached Dame Mavis Grant, head of Canning Street junior school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for a post-babies job-share, she knew she wanted to keep them. "It's working well. They are good members of staff and I wanted to accommodate them. One works three full days, Monday to Wednesday, and the other works Wednesday afternoon, Thursday and Friday.

"The Wednesday afternoon together allows teaching continuity and lets them discuss pastoral issues. I wanted that to be an official part of their working time - it ensures the discussion happens each week, and it shouldn't have to be in their own time.

"We were supported by the personnel department of the local education authority. I have 14 teachers, which gives me some juggling space. It would have been much more difficult with a small staff. Both teachers were curriculum co-ordinators, so there were management implications. It's not going to be possible in all schools, but it's a way of keeping valuable teachers who also have care responsibilities for children or elderly relatives."

Information: www.worklifebalancecentre.org is a gateway to other sites; government policy is well explained on www.dti.gov.uk, which also has lots of examples; download a summary of Work-Life Balance: beyond the rhetoric, by J Kodz, H Harper and S Dench on www.employment-studies.co.ukpubs384.html.The Book of Balanced Living by Lucy Daniels and Lucy McCarraher is published this month (Spiro Press pound;12.99). It promises to 'give you the tools to change your life for the better'

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you