There was much to welcome in education secretary Damian Hinds’ recruitment and retention strategy. Any move towards flexible working in schools has got to be a positive thing, and practical steps to make this happen will serve us well.
We have been co-heads of Boxgrove Primary School, part of Guildford Education Partnership Academies in Surrey, for the past four years. It would seem to be a universally accepted truth that there is a palpable need for more flexible working in education; and yet, it’s always quite striking to hear how difficult it can be to come across part-time roles.
Saying “yes” to flexible working can open up a whole new way of working. We aren’t at school five days a week. One of the obvious benefits is that we bring additional energy to the role. We have time to think, time to reflect and consider, and, as a result, we don’t have that constant threat of burn-out hanging over us. Many heads suffer from poor health – they are working at full tilt, and, at some point, for some people, something has to give. Burn-out is a major issue in schools – but with our approach, we are fortunate to have never been at that point.
Flexible working in schools
Another major benefit is that we don’t suffer the same sense of isolation that many heads do. Whether it’s an Ofsted inspection, a set of data that doesn’t quite hit the mark or a serious safeguarding concern, the buck stops with you. That can be a very lonely place as an individual head. We don’t have that – we are in it together and we support each other. We have each other for those "wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night moments" – happily they are few and far between.
From a parental point of view, having two of us gives them more options. There will be some families who prefer dealing with one of us over the other. And it also helps spread the load, too. At Boxgrove we have 630 pupils and 113 staff, so having us both works effectively.
So how on earth did we manage to secure this seemingly dream job? Well, the truth is that it happened organically. An interim headship came up and neither of us could have taken on a full-time post due to childcare – we have five children between us. As deputy and assistant head at Boxgrove at the time, we had worked with each other for many years and felt we could make a strong case for a job-share. We had the opportunity to prove it was a workable model and because we’d already been part of the leadership team, it didn’t represent a massive change for staff. We were – in effect – tried and tested.
But it takes a lot of commitment to make a co-headship a success. Finding the person that you are totally aligned with, someone with whom you can create a shared vision, is the first hurdle – there are only a handful of people we could job-share with. To make it work we support each other’s decisions and never undermine. It’s about being mindful of their wishes, and it’s not the right time to be egotistical or competitive, which is quite a contradiction if you have worked to pursue an ambition of being a school leader.
To ensure continuity we’ve developed five threads that make up our school vision, and we return to those again and again to underpin decisions we make and actions we take. We have an overlap day on a Wednesday and a handover on a Sunday night. Of course, sometimes there are out-of-hours calls, but flexible working is in its very essence flexible – we don’t have to be on site every day but are flexible in other ways.
It won’t be surprising to hear that we are both passionate advocates of flexible working. At Boxgrove we have lots of part-time staff, from our midday supervisors right up to our deputy. What’s really important to us – and we’re living proof of this – is that if you don’t allow people to work flexibly, you will lose really highl -skilled teachers. Even though there can be associated costs, in our experience you get more than you pay for: our sum is greater than our parts.
This attitude means that we retain our staff; we still have many of our NQTs and lots who trained with us. Keeping the staff who share our vision and fight for what we believe in, no matter their working pattern, means simply that our school will continue to improve for the children we serve.
So, if you’re looking for a job-share, be bold about it. Be confident in your offer as a combination and don’t apologise for only working part-time – we need to free ourselves from the belief that if you work flexibly you’re somehow less committed. It's not true. If anything, it shows more commitment because it usually means that you’re prepared to leave your own children to teach other people’s.
It’s genuinely good news that the government is shining a light on flexible working in schools. It can, and it does, work – and certainly from our experience, as one pupil told Ofsted, "two heads are better than one".
Alison Fitch and Rebecca Stacey are co-heads at Boxgrove Primary School, Surrey