Flexible working in schools

Written by: Julian Stanley | Published:
Image: iStock

There is a growing momentum behind efforts to make flexible and part-time working in schools a reality. Julian Stanley explains

As we are all well aware, the numbers of teachers and school leaders leaving and not returning to the profession is clearly and steadily growing. Retention of working-age teachers is getting tougher, particularly in secondary schools.

During 2011, six per cent of the workforce left for reasons other than retirement and by 2015 this had risen to eight per cent. At the same time, the number of secondary students is expected to rise by around 20 per cent in the next 10 years.

But outside of government intervention, what tools do school leaders have at their disposal to boost teacher retention in their own workforce?

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in its report Teacher Retention and Turnover Research identifies recruitment and retention as one of the key challenges currently facing England’s education system.

Its top recommendation is for government, school leaders, unions and other stakeholders in the sector to identify ways in which more and better part-time working can be accommodated in secondary schools. A previous report by the NFER – Is the Grass Greener Beyond Teaching? – shows that more than half of those who leave teaching posts actually stay in the wider education sector. Other common routes can be going to private schools or becoming teaching assistants.

The report found that on average most accept a 10 per cent lower salary but are more motivated by greater job satisfaction, reduced working hours and flexible working.

One teacher commented in the NFER report: “It’s not a decision against teaching, it’s a decision against working in this context – the workload, the impact on my life.”

That’s the conclusion that Laura came to, a teacher who called our helpline when she had become desperate trying to balance a new full-time role as an acting deputy head with a young family.

Creating genuine opportunities for flexible working more broadly is not a single solution but is a progressive working practice that could make a significant difference. It has the potential to draw back or retain those concerned with the major issue of workload and make teaching a more viable option for many with caring responsibilities.

An analysis of the school workforce by the Policy Exchange think-tank in 2016 found that one in four of the teachers who left in recent years were women aged between 30 and 39.

While a significant number re-join the profession within a few years, historically about half don’t and instead return to the workforce in a different role.

Jonathan Simons, author of the Policy Exchange report urged schools to “embrace flexible working”. He said: “It is a shocking waste of talent to see that the biggest group of leavers over the past four years – around 6,000 a year – has been women aged 30 to 39, and to know that historically, few of them will come back.

“It is also desperately sad to think that, in a profession which is all about educating the next generation, many of this group have simply concluded that it isn’t compatible with raising their own children.”

Flexible working may not be easy to implement, but throughout the workplace there are many instances of it working. While many schools have lagged behind, other employers have benefited from the retention of many employees with experience, talent and commitment that they otherwise might have lost for good.

The government has recognised that schools need help to look at what they can do. In December, the then education secretary Justine Greening announced a government drive to encourage progression in the sector. She said: “Given this disproportionately affects women, it’s a smart way to help close the gender pay gap.”

The Department for Education announced a pilot programme at its recent Flexible Working Summit together with the publication of a “myth-buster” guide around recruiting to flexible roles to help schools (see further information).

It is by no means a simple solution but for struggling school leaders, there is help and good practice out there to learn from.
Over time, trying to make more flexible roles work for both men and women in the secondary school workforce will open up opportunities to protect staff wellbeing and raise standards.

  • Julian Stanley is the CEO of the Education Support Partnership. For help or advice on any issue facing those working in education, contact the Education Support Partnership’s free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 or visit www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk

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