Why the teaching profession needs more flexibility

Offering teachers the kind of flexible working that other professions take for granted could make a real difference in terms of recruitment and retention

Charlotte Gascoigne

woman doing the splits

In the debate about whether flexible working could fix shortages in the teaching profession, we’re a long way from reaching a consensus. 

Some have suggested that making more part-time teaching jobs available is unaffordable, because it would require thousands of additional teachers to make up the lost days.

More recently, Damian Hinds took a very different approach, suggesting job-shares as a way of retaining teachers who might otherwise leave. He then called out the “clear disconnect between the numbers who wish to work flexibly, and the numbers able to do so”, following the publication of the Department for Education’s Exploring flexible working practice in schools report.

It’s a complex issue, which doesn’t have a simple right or wrong answer. But my response to the view that we can’t afford to offer more part-time and flexible teaching roles is this: we can’t afford not to. 

More control

Clearly, the profession needs to work harder to hold on to its existing teachers, and attract experienced people from other sectors. And, while schools will never be able to match corporate salaries, one thing they can do is to try to give their employees more control over their time and work-life balance. 

We know that teachers want this. According to a Teacher Tapp survey, 40 per cent of teachers say they would prefer to work part-time. Currently, only 17 per cent of secondary school teachers actually do. This means large numbers of teachers may be dissatisfied with their arrangements, or struggling to manage them – with an inevitable knock-on effect on their students. 

We also know from Now Teach, who recruit and support career-changers into teaching training, that the vast majority of their graduates are looking for a part-time job after completing their first year.

What’s needed is a focus on how to make teaching more flexible. And, though there’s no off-the-shelf solution, that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

It’s for this reason that Now Teach commissioned us to research how to build flexibility into secondary schools. 

As Katie Waldegrave, executive director of Now Teach, has written, it is vital to find practical solutions to the challenges raised by flexible working. Too many headteachers are fearful that just starting the conversation could result in an unsustainable flood of part-timers. As long as this view prevails, change won’t happen.

Meaningful change

We spent six months investigating the status quo, identifying the cultural, attitudinal and structural barriers that stand in the way of more flexibility, and exploring the options for overcoming them. 

Our report, published today, sets out what we have learned, and recommends a six-step process that schools can take to bring about meaningful change. This includes:

  • Building a team to lead and drive change across the whole school.
  • Challenging perceptions about issues such as the impact of flexible working on pupils.
  • Up-skilling staff on the options for flexible job design.
  • Piloting any chosen approach.

Creative timetabling

Our research also highlighted something we had always suspected, which is the need for creative timetabling. Teachers’ jobs are, in effect, designed by the timetable, so getting this right is crucial for teacher work-life balance. 

If you have staff who would like to take their own children to school, for example, you could schedule form time or assembly later in the day, and make sure they’re not teaching lesson one. Similarly, allocating all a full-time teacher’s free periods into a single day would allow them to spend that day working from home. 

These are examples of the kind of flexibility that people in other professions take for granted. Tackling them in teaching could make a real difference in terms of attracting and retaining talented staff. 

And, yes, we know it’s not easy. We know that timetabling can be a real headache, even without incorporating this kind of creativity. But it is possible. The latest timetabling software makes it easier to build in options for some teachers to have early starts or late finishes and to take days off. A small number of schools, cited in our report, are doing it already. The next step must be to make part-time and flexible-teaching roles more widely available.

So here is our challenge. If we are to find sustainable, workable solutions for the flexible-working conundrum, we need to tackle it at a whole-profession level. With many schools already struggling to balance their budgets, this will require centralised funding. This may seem unaffordable in the current economic climate. But as I said at the beginning of this article, we can’t afford not to take action.

As experts in flexible job design, we are well-placed to take this work to the next level, so this is our rallying call: help us make it happen. If you have any thoughts on how to attract the funding we need, or if you’ve got any experiences you’d like to share with us, please get in touch.

Dr Charlotte Gascoigne is director of research and consultancy at Timewise

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Charlotte Gascoigne

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