I recently led a meeting of around 25 union representatives from the network of schools that I work for. We flickered into view on one another’s screens, raised hands and forgot to unmute, complained of wifi issues and reacted with the wrong emojis.
With live teaching having resumed a few months ago, this was like a nostalgic trip back into full lockdown. The frantic rushing for coffee between sessions, the sudden realisation that your butt is about to fall off because you’ve actually not moved it an inch in hours…ah, all the joys that we’d missed.
In fact, looking back at lockdown was one of the items on our agenda. With working practices having radically shifted almost overnight, as we now pondered hopefully the return of “normality” this coming September, what were the things from this extraordinary period that we felt were worth keeping and what were we keen never to experience again?
Remote parents’ evenings made a strong showing in the “keep” column. Routine remote access to lessons – with all the double preparation and technical jiggery-pokery – was high on the “bin” list.
Flexible working: more than just working part-time
But the standout issue that every single break-out group came back singing in grand chorus was this: PLEASE CAN WE CARRY ON WITH SOME FLEXIBLE WORKING.
Interestingly, most weren’t referring to the period of full lockdown and remote delivery of lessons. What people had found more of a revelation was the mixed economy that many had experienced during the period of cautious return: teaching children live in classrooms but then being released to fulfil much of the non-contact elements of the job virtually.
This was a group of highly engaged, very experienced teachers and support staff, many of whom were working in hectic leadership roles. They shared feelings of slight shock and pleasant surprise: when, because of Covid, staff had been strongly encouraged to work more flexibly and not be on site all day every day, the sky had not actually fallen in.
Shock! Horror! Staff in schools were professional, conscientious and hard-working, and could be trusted to get things done outside the perimeter fence. Some teachers actually found themselves producing better work and more interesting lesson plans while they – careful you don’t faint now – sat in their own lounge on an afternoon when they weren’t timetabled to be teaching or had other onsite responsibilities.
It has long fascinated me that, as centres of learning, schools can be terribly Jurassic when it comes to modelling best practice themselves. I heard from a one-time colleague, who had returned after Easter to an Inset on centre-assessed grades. The staff had been unceremoniously told by the deputy head delivering the training that “I’m just going to read you this PowerPoint. It’s the only way through this stuff”. It was a three-hour session, one that – had it been inspected by Ofsted – would surely have been flagged as “requires improvement”.
One of the core responsibilities that schools have is to prepare young people for the work that will likely lie ahead of them. No surprise then that Victorian schools were so like factories: production lines of learning with bells and regimented lines of desks.
But the world that our students are going into is changing rapidly and schools must respond in kind. If students are likely going to spend their working lives not in factories but in more hybrid environments, why shouldn’t we offer a good model of this?
Fostering a culture that trusts hardworking teachers
Having read the recent Tes article by Paul Read on whether staff are likely to be judged for leaving on time, I found myself wondering if we might be even more ambitious: wouldn’t it be great to work in a school that took flexible working seriously?
The Department for Education (DfE) is itself attempting to do this, with a number of flexible working hubs across the country. Yet the fact that they are having to hand-hold schools to do this suggests that there is nervousness among school leaders to genuinely promote it.
Why? Because, I think, with such weight put on inspections and data, schools have become anxious places, and headteachers are naturally fearful of loosening their grip on the way that staff have traditionally worked.
But clearly something has to give. With other professions embracing flexibility, more and more teachers are citing the lack of it as a reason to leave the profession. Improving retention is one of the reasons why the DfE is promoting these hubs. To improve retention, flexible working should surely be something that heads promote, too.
The unanimous opinion of people at the meeting I attended last week was that increased flexibility had had a fantastic effect on mental health. Rather than feeling scrutinised and under constant surveillance, they felt trusted, and this made them happier and more positive about the work that they were doing.
I would bet that a school that became known for this would find itself having far fewer retention problems and a far stronger pool of applicants for any posts that did come up.
Flexibility should not only mean “more part-time staff”. It could mean fostering a culture that trusts hardworking, full-time teachers to fulfil parts of their role offsite. We saw it work during the pandemic; we ought to grasp this opportunity to embed it for good.
Kester Brewin has taught mathematics across a wide variety of schools for the past 20 years. He tweets as @kesterbrewin