Why teachers should all work a four-day week

School working patterns are anachronistic, inflexible and in urgent need of reform, says Jonathan Taylor

Flexible working: Could teachers work a four-day week?

Sometimes good news stories come disguised as bad news stories. The scale of outrage following Sir Andrew Carter’s recent comments on the "immorality" of teachers seeking part-time work reflects a shifting of the sands on this particular issue. 

Less than 10 years ago, a friend of mine – then a recent mum – was offered a 0.5 FTE contract spread across all five days of the week, including one day with a period one lesson and a period seven lesson. (If we are going to talk about immoral, I would argue that this is immoral). 

While such practices may still exist, they are the exception rather than the norm, as school leaders no longer feel they can – or should – treat staff with impunity. 

However, the battle for the status of part-time work is but one front in the much wider war of flexible working. 

The need for flexible working

As recently as 1967, homosexuality was illegal in the UK and punishable by incarceration. When the Sexual Offences Act went before the House of Lords in 1967, Lord Dudley proclaimed, to popular acclaim: “I cannot stand homosexuals. They are the most disgusting people in the world… Prison is much too good a place for them.” (Queen Gertrude’s famous response seems apt here: the gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.) 

The long struggle for the enfranchisement of women similarly reflects the extent to which entrenched attitudes have thwarted and delayed inevitable change. 

More recently, news in 2007 that Jacqui Oatley would be the first woman commentating on BBC’s Match of the Day prompted the football manager Dave Bassett to respond: “I am totally against it and everybody I know in football is totally against it.” 

If these examples demonstrate how difficult it can be to bring about paradigmatic change, they also demonstrate how, in the space of a generation, the unthinkable can become the incontrovertible. What seems radical and profound now may well be the norm by 2040. 

Teacher recruitment and retention

School working patterns are one example where this is likely to be the case. They are anachronistic, inflexible and in urgent need of reform. We need a paradigm shift. 

The argument for a modernisation of working practices is compelling, even beyond the moral obligation to accommodate the changed needs of new parents.

For example, the TUC calculated that teachers work more overtime than any other profession. Furthermore, education is currently suffering a recruitment and retention crisis of unprecedented proportions.

The Department for Education missed its recruitment target for the seventh consecutive year, and teachers are leaving the profession in droves. 

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Therefore,  it is imperative that teaching moves in line with other industries, to create working conditions conducive to the demands of modern society. 

A four-day week?

The DfE and schools have made good progress around the fringes of flexible working. However, we should be examining more radical solutions. 

One possibility is a four-day working week. To be clear, I’m not talking about 0.8 contracts here, but nor am I (yet) talking about 0.8 workload. And I’m certainly not advocating a four-day school week, as Gordon Cairns does

Instead, I am suggesting compressed hours: teaching – and being paid for – a standard five-day timetable delivered over four days.

Not everyone is convinced. In a recent edition of the Sunday Times, an article by David Smith bore the headline: “Of all Labour’s stupidities, the four-day week stands out." 

But a recent study by Henley Business School found that two-thirds of UK businesses operating on a four-day week reported improvements in staff productivity. These findings correlate with those from a pilot undertaken by Microsoft Japan. 

Many of the arguments against a four-day working week were voiced in 1938, before the Holidays with Pay Act came into force, and no one is suggesting a reversal of that particular piece of legislation.

Commitment to the status quo

What about duties and form-tutor roles? What about primary school teachers? What message does this send to students and parents? How can I fit five days’ teaching into four days? 

Many of the individuals I have spoken to simply dismissed the idea out of hand, focusing on the barriers and not the opportunities. Unsurprising, given that our aversion to change and our commitment to the status quo are hard-wired. 

Author and entrepreneur Rob Ferriss suggests that, faced with the choice of unhappiness or uncertainty, the majority of people will opt for the former. 

So let’s address the objections. The first objection above is a minor logistical issue that any creative timetabler will be able to accommodate. 

The second is, admittedly, difficult to answer at this stage. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t pilot something in secondary schools just because it doesn’t easily translate to primaries. 

The third objection listed is, to my mind, one of the most powerful barriers to progress in our profession. It is, for example, why marking policies have reached mind-boggling levels of stupidity in recent years.

Now in my eighth year of headship, I’ve reached the conclusion that, if you firmly believe something is right for the pupils and staff, then – with the requisite attention to communication – you can bring the parents along with you.

This brings us to the final objection: that teachers will need to squeeze in even more work on their days in school, and will end up working on their fifth day anyway. Quite possibly. But, as a colleague in my previous school countered when this objection was raised in discussion: “Yes, I might have to do some work on the fifth day, but I can do it on the beach or in my living room, which beats doing it in the staffroom and saves me two hours of commuting.” 

Tackling teacher workload

The compressed-hours solution may not reduce workload to the desired extent. However, it will reduce workload to a desirable extent. It will also allow parents to spend more time with their children and go some way towards mitigating the shameful cost of UK childcare. 

A working week compressed into four days is not a panacea. The culture of excessive accountability, extreme marking policies and a host of other pernicious practices also requires addressing. 

Nonetheless, we need to stop tinkering and be more radical in our approach to school timetables. We need to challenge the common misconceptions that hinder progress in this domain: that job shares are always an inferior option to a single employee; that a part-time teacher is less valuable and more dispensable than a full-time one; that full-time teachers must be in school whenever children are in school. 

Having introduced a much later start for sixth-formers in my previous headship, and witnessed the benefits it brought, I am convinced that fear of change is often more problematic than change itself. Too many stakeholders in education are wedded to shibboleths from their own schooldays. 

At one point or another in theplast 110 years, women’s suffrage, homosexuality, paid holidays, Sunday trading and a national health system free at the point of use all shifted from being threats to the fabric of society to fiercely protected components of that same fabric. Perhaps, one day, a four-day working week will make that same transition.

Jonathan Taylor is principal of the Cognita school International School – Zurich North. He tweets @JTaylor_swiss 

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