'Work should not impinge on teachers' personal lives'

Sir Andrew Carter's comments about teachers who request flexible working are archaic, says WomenEd founder

Helena Marsh

Flexible working: Why teachers need be able to go part-time

The groundswell of response to the comments made by Sir Andrew Carter at the National Teacher Training and Recruitment Conference about the immorality of teachers requesting part-time employment indicates the strength of feeling towards flexible working. It is also a stark indicator of how far we still have to go to ensure that all school leaders, and those in positions of influence, accept, support and appreciate part-time teachers.

My involvement in the inception of the WomenEd campaign group in 2015 came from a commitment to challenge barriers that undermine a significant proportion of the teaching population’s ability to thrive in the profession. Having not being present at the talk, I hope that Sir Andrew’s remarks have been lost in translation, out of context.

Indignation and incredulity shared by both men and women on social media platforms since the publication of the Tes article capturing Sir Andrew’s seemingly archaic standpoint rightly signal the many and varied reasons why teachers rely on part-time working.

The statutory entitlement to be able to request flexible working has been in place since 2014. To deny teachers this right and condemn them for seeking the benefits that employees in other sectors are afforded is unethical.

What is wrong and immoral is that teachers have become expected to absorb work in their personal lives and that it has become customary to expect teachers to spend evenings and weekends completing professional tasks as unpaid overtime.

Flexible working 'shows compassion'

The decision to request part-time working often stems from lifestyle factors that make full-time work unfeasible. For example, needing to care for a young family or elderly relative or manage health challenges. There are also an increasing number of teachers who deliberately opt to work part-time to manage other ventures or interests. This reflects a diverse workforce with a range of personal circumstances.

Sir Andrew’s stance appears to dismiss those that are unwilling to commit to long working weeks. The viewpoint is reminiscent of the pejorative use of the term "part-timer".

Teaching is undeniably an exhausting and demanding profession. Despite the fact that recent research indicates a reduction in teachers’ working hours, it is still the case that the vast majority of teachers work well beyond their contractual hours in order to satisfy the needs of the job.

Many part-time teachers are known to use their days off to complete school work to be able to spend time at weekends with friends and family or engage in non-work activities. In essence, they are being paid part-time to work full-time hours.

I’d be interested in understanding Sir Andrew’s meaning of "I don't think we should separate life and work”. Is he really suggesting that those choosing teaching as a vocation should be expected to make personal sacrifices to commit fully to the job?   

The belief in an inability to ‘have it all’ inherently discriminates against teachers that attempt to have a family and/or a satisfying personal life. It is a sad reflection of the teaching profession if it is impossible to achieve this. For many, part-time working is the tool that supports with juggling professional and personal responsibilities.

When co-writing the "Flexing Our Schools" chapter for the WomenEd book 10% Braver with fellow headteacher and CEO Caroline Derbyshire, the research into flexible school environments that we encountered was compelling.

Women aged 30-39 represent 27 per cent of teachers leaving the profession each year, and more than half of teachers leaving to look after their families do not return.

Sir Andrew acknowledges that there are 500,000 qualified teachers in the UK not teaching and yet doesn’t seem to appreciate that school cultures that are more accepting and supportive of flexible working practices help to retain teachers in the profession. Making work seem possible for people at crunch points in their lives demonstrates compassion and care for staff. They, in turn, are more likely to remain loyal to an organisation where they feel this is the case.

Yes, making flexible working work can be challenging. Yes, it is more straightforward to timetable with full-time teachers. Yes, parents, students and colleagues might prefer full-time arrangements for continuity purposes. However, the benefits of recruiting and retaining high-calibre and committed part-time staff far outweigh the drawbacks.

There are a growing number of flexible-working case studies from schools (including my own where a third of teachers and half of TLR holders are part-time) on the Chartered College website that are being curated by the Association of School and College Leders and WomenEd.

Amid a recruitment and retention crisis, schools cannot afford to discount teachers on the basis of their inability to commit to full-time employment. Staffing a school with less capable full-time teachers rather than seeking to accommodate flexible-working requests is not in the best interests of children.

Helena Marsh, executive principal of Linton Village College and Chilford Hundred Education Trust, is co-founder of WomenEd and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable

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Helena Marsh

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