Embracing flexible working at secondary level

With record numbers of teachers quitting the chalkface, embracing flexible working practices is no longer a choice for secondary schools. Neil Renton discusses how his own mindset has evolved
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It is 3:30pm and the bell has rung. Like many headteachers across the land, I stand outside the school gate, watching the students set off on their journey home.

Something catches my attention, not a student but a teacher – leaving just after the bell. The learned prejudice kicks in without thinking, as quickly as the students take out their mobile phones at the end of the school day, and I judge.

Why are they leaving? How can they have done all their marking, planning, reports, and contacted parents? Why are they so “uncommitted”?


Changing our mindsets

The process of becoming a headteacher is an interesting one. It takes around 15 to 20 years and in a school like the one I lead, a large comprehensive school in the North of England, there have only been nine headteachers in its 120-year history – rich pickings for values and cultural ideas to be passed on from generation to generation.

Emerging leaders often learn by modelling their burgeoning leadership skills on those above them – leaders who may well be doing their very best but are likely locked into cultural attitudes towards work, cultural attitudes reaching long into the past.

The French sociologist, Pierre “cultural capital” Bourdieu, would have been interested in this example about how culture maintains itself across generations.

One of his useful concepts – cultural reproduction – sheds light on how cultures transmit accepted norms and values across generations, often leading to the reproduction of inequalities and perpetuating existing social structures.

Headteachers may well be, unknowingly, the sustain pedal of beliefs and ideas usefully conceived to solve a unique set of problems from the past. But fresh problems emerge.


The reality of retention

Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills and special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, captured the power of education quite simply when he said: “Your education today is your economy tomorrow.”

This is a thought made even more sobering in light of data (DfE, 2023) showing that 39,930 teachers left teaching for reasons other than retirement in the academic year 2022/23 – 8.8% of the workforce and the highest number since records began in 2010 (SecEd’s report on this can be found here).

Even with the moral purpose of shaping a brighter long-term future, recruiting and retaining teachers seems incredibly hard.

Maybe mindsets need to change, especially when we learn that one-fifth of teachers who left full-time teaching moved into part-time work (Worth & McLean, 2022).

And mindsets do change. My mindset towards how, where and when teachers can work has changed significantly, not during the pandemic, but when I read the gender pay gap report for our multi-academy trust.

Typical of many organisations, our numbers were stark – there are many more women than men in our workplace, yes, but proportionally many more men in upper quartile pay and many more women in lower quartile pay.

What if our cultural attitude towards flexible working in school was perpetuating gender inequality in pay? It is time to flex.

A recent report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (Harland et al, 2023) discovered something that we have seen paying off in our school – and something that gives a great deal of hope for the future (SecEd’s report on this can be found here).

The review concludes that flexible working practices “appear to play an important role in improving teacher recruitment and retention” and that “offering flexibility is associated with several positive teacher outcomes”.

In 2016, 25 of our teachers were formally working flexibly. Now that figure stands at 50 out of 115 teachers. But why does that matter? Without this change, we simply would not have been able to ensure subject specialists in front of each class.

Further, we would not have been able to retain the wisdom and expertise of some of our most experienced teachers, or those talented teachers who would have left the profession if they did not have the option to balance their working lives with other pressures on their time.

The NFER research (Harland et al, 2023) found “considerable perceptual evidence that flexible working can support recruitment, retention, and workforce stability”, contributing – wait for it – positively to things like staff wellbeing, job satisfaction, attendance, productivity, motivation, capacity, expertise, diversity, career progression, succession planning, and reducing the gender pay gap.

These messages were also in evidence during SecEd’s recent podcast episode focused on the benefits and practicalities of flexible working in the secondary school (2023).

Flexing indeed.


Flexible Working Ambassador MAT and School

Our school is embracing the positive effects of flexible working in a pioneering initiative, funded by the Department for Education (DfE), to promote working practices in multi-academy trusts and schools.

As a Flexible Working Ambassador Multi-Academy Trust and School (FWAMS), we have been appointed, along with 12 other schools, by the DfE to support school leaders in implementing and embedding flexible working.

These ambassadors offer practical advice on designing a flexible working policy and on overcoming common challenges such as timetabling. The programme strives to increase awareness of the benefits of flexible working and the full range of flexible working practices available, which can include part-time working, job-sharing, home or remote working, phased retirement, and personal/family days.

Whenever I talk about the benefits of flexible working to groups of school leaders, emotive stories are told about how “teaching is a full-time job” or “children will just get confused with having more than one teacher”.

But I look back at my old mindset toward the “uncommitted” teacher at the school gate. Change is uncomfortable and it takes time to evolve our generations-old thinking.

The FWAMS initiative allows school leaders to do just this, taking steps to support teachers and build the future our children deserve.

  • Neil Renton is headteacher of Harrogate Grammar School in North Yorkshire, a large comprehensive secondary school of more than 2,100 pupils and part of the Red Kite Learning Trust. He is the author of the recently published New School Leader: What now?
  • Harrogate Grammar School and Red Kite Learning Trust have been appointed by the Department for Education as a Flexible Working Ambassador to provide bespoke support in implementing flexible working. This article reflects the views of the author, but should not be interpreted as government policy.


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