Is your school family-friendly?

Written by: Amy Benziane | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Research has identified flexible and part-time working as being one of the keys to the recruitment and retention crisis in schools. Drawing on her own experience, Amy Benziane considers how schools can – and must – become more family friendly...

For the last few years, I have worked at a school that ensures every member of staff is empowered to facilitate outstanding progress for all students, regardless of whether they are employed to work in the building five days a week or just one.
Our school has just over a quarter of staff working part-time. Not only this, we have a range of policies that enable those who work full-time, but who also happen to be parents, to achieve work/life harmony.

Open up the dialogue on flexible working

When I came to my current school on interview day I was applying for a full-time key stage 3 coordinator role. I was on maternity leave and needed to find a school closer to home that had staff and student wellbeing at its core.

The openness and simple acknowledgement that I was not less capable just because I was currently taking time off to care for my child filled me with confidence and allowed me to ask a range of questions about how the school supports the wellbeing of parents in the “do you have any questions?” section of the interview.

The answers, and the atmosphere in the school, reassured me that they had great wellbeing policies that benefited all staff, especially working parents.

A few days after the interview, I had an offer of a teaching role and in this phone call with a member of the senior leadership team I informed them that I would take up the post, but only if I could do so on a part-time basis.

This had been my plan all along. Why? Well, in the UK only six per cent of advertised jobs with a salary above £20,000 actually offer flexible or part-time working hours up front (Allen, 2015).

Furthermore, a recent report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) highlighted that secondary schools should do more to encourage and facilitate flexible working if we are to tackle the recruitment and retention issues faced by education (Sharp et al, 2019).

When looking at retention and recruitment, senior leaders really must be open to the idea of flexible working as a way of retaining their staff and improving the wellbeing of all members of the school team.

Across my school, 24 teaching staff work flexibly, including 11 in leadership positions, and within my department we have six English teachers working part-time (ranging from two to four days per week) and a further six who work full-time.

Those working part-time have, on average, been teaching for 10 years and therefore bring to the team a wealth of experience, including a doctorate –experience that could well have been lost to a more inflexible school.

Of course, communication and forward planning is essential – from the application process to working practices. When I was offered my current role I was asked if I wanted to work three full days or mornings or a combination.

However, this question was not a one-off. It is an annual conversation for all staff working flexibly, aiming to ensure those staff can review how their working hours are working for them. It acknowledges that people’s circumstances change and allows those who do not currently benefit from flexible working to see that, if they did need it, they could ask and be listened to.

The dialogue does not end at the end of an interview. Annual conversations also allow those in charge of timetabling to match teachers for job shares and assess whether there is room to add further members to their teams.

Within my department we have had vacancies filled simply by having these conversations – people have been able to increase their timetable by a day or have switched their working days around meaning that a whole recruitment drive was avoided. It also means that our students enjoy consistency and continue to be taught by the familiar, experienced members of our team.

Trust your colleagues

Flexible working is gaining popularity across most sectors. Companies are having to understand the need to trust their employees more in order to get the most out of them. But how does this work in the world of education?

Understandably a teacher needs to be in the classroom for a minimum number of hours, as students cannot be left unattended. But beyond that teachers need to be trusted.

Flexible working does not mean working less for the same money (or, perhaps worse, the opposite: working more for less money!) or slacking off, it means finding hours that suit your life and how you work best.

Sometimes that will mean only working a few days a week, for others it will mean arriving much earlier than the first bell but leaving early too to enable them to pick up their children from school.

I know some teachers in this school who consistently arrive at 7am, complete all their marking, plan superb lessons for their teams and still manage to be home before 4pm. If you happen to work best in your classroom then great – but perhaps you would rather get home to spend time with your child, friend, partner, dog and then do your work later in the evening. It is fantastic that this is recognised by senior leadership at this school; there is no judgement passed for going home “early” or arriving “late” – there is no such thing in fact.

The work gets done and that is what matters. This is even reiterated through whole staff emails being branded with the following words: “We value staff and student wellbeing. If you receive this email outside of school business hours, we don’t expect you to read, action or respond.”

This striving for balance and trust does not just speak to those staff who are parents, and that is also part of reducing the stigma – the parents among the staff do not want to be singled out or treated differently just because of their reproductive choices. A policy that embraces all staff wellbeing ensures this.

When you hear that UK staff work longer hours than the French, the Germans, the Scandinavians and the Dutch, but are less productive than all of them (OECD, 2019) you can begin to see how we as educators need to work hard to avoid the presenteeism mindset that other sectors or industries may have.

I feel trusted to plan my own time. But, importantly, I am also able to do this thanks to the fact that I am communicated with in a clear and professional way.

Be clear in communication and expectations

Everyone, whether parents or not, are balancing other responsibilities and so being able to do things at our own pace is so valuable. Simple things can make a big difference.

Communication is important to ensure that everyone feels a part of the school community and I believe we need to do this in various forms: some people appreciate the face-to-face, others prefer to be able to re-check things via an email bulletin.

Being aware that some part-time colleagues will not be in school on whole school briefing or meeting days – and that this is not the end of the world – is key. I am one of them, but this has not hindered my involvement in whole school activities or made me feel less a part of the staff body.

Far from feeling out of the loop, I am always able to access the information on a Tuesday morning (when my working week begins) thanks to timely minutes and bulletins/email updates.

At this school, calendars are set in advance and care has been taken not to overload staff by having numerous deadlines all falling on the same week, or even something as simple as parents’ evenings not all being on the same day every time.

This means that partner-teachers can take these evenings in turns and it also means those who work full-time can have more flexibility to attend other engagements outside of work.

Having things like data drops open and accessible in advance is a really useful (and free!) way of allowing people to plan their time and work flexibly. It is clear when the information is needed, I am not likely to change my mind about things like report comments when the deadline does come round, so I always try to do them earlier rather than later.

Finally, I have the benefit of a great team and a brilliant line manager with whom I can be open and frank. She will hold her hands up if she has not filled me in on something, apologise and rectify the situation.

And if I have misread a bulletin or something has not been clear, again, she is able to fill me in so I can go about doing my job properly. No judgement is made on the fact that I choose to only do this job three days a week.
Making sure that your middle leaders are open to flexible working, and do not see it as a hindrance in their department is vital.

Whether you are currently working full or part-time, try to be a role model for flexible working and ensure that the policies that work for the positive benefit of all staff’s physical and mental wellbeing are at the forefront of our minds.

Conclusion

As a working parent, I think it is important that we have those difficult conversations that will pave the way for others and work for all our benefit. Speak to your line managers, or if appropriate, directly to middle or senior leaders, about working hours or pressures. Maybe they did not realise that x would be difficult because of y – help them to help others.

I am obviously not the only parent in the school and schools are trying to wise up to the fact that the teaching profession has become unsustainable for many people, regardless of their family situation.

The policies and practices that have developed at my school have not come about by accident, it has required honest, and sometimes brave, conversations. The wellbeing and appreciation of all staff is paramount to running an outstanding school.

  • Amy Benziane trained with Teach First in 2010 and has worked as a part-time English teacher and tutor since 2016.

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