Branding employees who ask to reduce their hours as "wrong and immoral" was never going to win the hearts and minds of teachers, of whom one in six reportedly wants to work part-time.
So it’s no surprise that Sir Andrew Carter's comments at a recent event in London raised a few eyebrows, to put it mildly.
Just to recap, the head of the South Farnham Educational Trust told attendees at the National Teacher Training and Recruitment Conference: “If somebody wants a part-time job, it’s wrong and immoral of them to take a full-time job and expect the organisation to [make] it into a part-time activity."
Background: 1 in 6 teachers wants to work part-time
It was hard not to reflect, while editing Amy Gibbons' Tes article containing the comments, that I fitted Sir Andrew's definition of "wrong and immoral".
Before returning from maternity leave to my role as Tes’ deputy news editor in October, I had the temerity to submit a flexible working request. Happily, my employer agreed to a jobshare, meaning my working week has fallen from five to three days.
Sure, I’m not a teacher, and there may be particular challenges to making flexible working practices work in schools. But Sir Andrew is still swimming against the tide.
Teachers want to work part-time
In 2018, 25,300 teachers decreased their working hours – exceeding the 18,500 whose hours went up.
More than three-quarters of school leaders reported that they had received a request for flexible working from a staff member in the past five years, according to Department for Education research (however, more than a quarter said they had rejected such a request).
There has even been recognition at the top that more needs to be done, with former education secretary Damian Hinds saying that he wanted to see flexible working in schools increase, to ensure that teaching "remains a family-friendly profession".
But Sir Andrew seems to think that some people’s expectations around work-life balance are frankly unrealistic, commenting: "Some people have too much work, some people have too much life."
Who are all these part-timers flouncing around and enjoying life that bit "too much"? It’s a caricature that definitely doesn’t ring true with me.
Like many working parents, my days in the office are a whirlwind of unreliable public transport; frantic dashes between home, childminder, school and station; and a job that doesn’t stop when I leave the building. My days off are hectic and demanding, too, but I relish the extra time with my young children.
Responding on social media to our story, several teachers commented that without going part-time, they would have crashed out of the profession long ago. This is borne out by research: a huge unmet need for flexible working is leading many to leave the profession in search of it elsewhere, according to National Foundation for Educational Research findings last year.
We all know enough about the teacher recruitment and retention crisis to understand why, in such a female-dominated profession, embracing flexible working is not just a nice gesture but an absolute necessity.
That said, let’s not fall into a trap of labelling all part-timers as frazzled working mums, ignoring all the working fathers, adults of both genders with other caring responsibilities, and those who need to reduce their hours for health or other reasons.
It’s an issue that was hotly debated on the news desk in the course of publishing Amy's story: should we accompany the article with a stock "working mum" photo to reflect the fact that most flexible working requests come from women? Or dare to challenge preconceptions with an image of a worn-out working dad? In the end, my small effort to smash the patriarchy was rendered redundant when the picture desk summoned up a photo of Sir Andrew from the Tes archives.
But our discussion hit on a key point: making blanket statements about people who wish to work fewer hours is counter-productive. And that's certainly true if you’re a former government adviser speaking in a public forum.