Will Covid force schools to rethink flexible working?

Schools are behind the national trend when it comes to flexible working. Could this be about to change, asks Emma Turner

Emma Turner

Woman does backbend, while also working on her laptop

I am a mother of three small children and I work flexibly.

Let’s just re-read that sentence a second time. How many of you read the sentence and instead of “and” read “so”? 

For too long, the narrative around flexible working has been predominantly around part-time working for those colleagues – usually women – who are parenting small children. But this view does not encompass the huge opportunities for development, innovation and creativity that a true commitment to flexible working affords an organisation. 

This week, Zurich Insurance published a detailed report, which outlined the large-scale benefits of offering flexible working, and the positive impacts it can have, in terms of productivity, recruitment, diversity and retention. For someone who has worked flexibly in education since 2004, in multiple roles including senior leadership and headship, this was a welcome read, but not a revelation. 

Compare the outcomes of this Zurich report with the Department for Education’s 2017 flexible-working report. This outlines the percentages of our teachers who work part-time. Around 8.6 per cent of male teachers work part-time, compared with 13 per cent of men in the workforce nationally. The difference is even greater for women: 26.4 per cent of female teachers work part-time, compared with 42 per cent of women in the workforce nationally. 

Flexible working: responding to the messiness of people's lives

We have a sector that is significantly behind the wider world of work. And we also have a workforce that is leaving in droves. We are haemorrhaging talent and expertise

Flexible working may not be the silver bullet to solve all our recruitment and retention challenges. But what it does provide is a recognition that society is changing and that we need to respond. People’s lives are messy and unpredictable, and our employment offers and working patterns need to begin to afford colleagues the opportunity to live well. 

This is why I prefer the term “flexible living” to “flexible working”. People who are applying for flexible working patterns usually already have a lot on. They may be parents of young children or carers for an elderly relative. They may have their own mental or physical health challenges to manage. They may be approaching retirement and wanting to reduce their hours. Or they may be at a point in their careers where they want to pursue further study or develop a more portfolio career. 

The reasons for requesting flexible working are myriad. Each is its own nuanced case, which needs a carefully considered and crafted response, rather than the blanket rigid approach to flexible working that so many schools have. 

There also needs to be a recognition that those who request something other than full-time work are not lazy people. They want to work. They want to stay in the game, to contribute to the organisation, and to help develop our pupils. They want to develop, to grow, to continue to do the job for which they trained – but not in a traditional structure. 

Coronavirus: busting flexible-working myths

The pandemic has gone some way towards busting many myths around flexible working. The fact that schools had to close their doors to many pupils from March, and that now we are responding with agility to the new challenges of blended learning, remote teaching, and organising every aspect of our school day differently shows that nothing in education cannot be reinvented.

However, let’s be clear: the work that went on in lockdown was categorically not flexible working. Trying to teach Year 9 English from your kitchen table, while your toddler runs around your feet, you’re homeschooling your two elder children and your husband is on a Zoom call across the breakfast table is categorically not flexible working. 

However, what it did do was to show us that there was indeed space for innovation and development. And seeing senior leaders chairing meetings over Teams with their own toddler on their lap, or a colleague listening to a meeting recording at a later date as they were organising emergency care for a vulnerable family member, did something else. It gave us a glimpse of the lived backdrop to their working lives. 

Very quickly, working practices adjusted, as people realised communication needed to be more timely, meetings needed greater clarity, and deadlines needed to be more fluid. What the pandemic has taught us is that we can do things differently, including flexible working. 

What really stands in the way of innovation

If you’d have said even a year ago that a significant chunk of CPD – and most meetings – no longer needed to be conducted in draughty classrooms or school halls, around a rather sad plate of biscuits and instead could be moved online, very few people would have believed you.

The fact that, as a profession, we’ve moved so much of our practice online has shown that our insistence on doing what we’d always done was standing in the way of innovation. 

The same is true of flexible working. Many of the barriers cited as reasons why flexible working cannot work are not set-in-stone impossibilities. Instead, they are indicative of a historical system, or the mindset of a particular individual. 

If we are to create a diverse, vibrant and agile education workforce of the future, we cannot expect to do so with rigid outdated career opportunities and structures. If the only workers we allow to develop and progress in our organisations are those who enjoy good health, do not have parenting or caring commitments, don’t want to study or have a portfolio career and are able to work full-time, then how are we ensuring our staff bodies are made up of a range of diverse voices and lived experiences? 

If we are to retain our brightest and our best, we need to embrace the opportunities flexible work affords, and begin to think completely differently about our workforces. If Covid has shown us anything, it’s that there’s nothing that cannot be changed. 

Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Trust, Leicestershire. Her book about flexible working, Let's Talk About Flex, is published on 25 November, and available for pre-order here. She tweets @Emma_Turner75 

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