You don’t need to look far to find an article about the recruitment crisis in education: we seem to be perpetually in crisis about something.
Only this week, the National Education Union has voted for seven days of strike action over pay. There is clearly discontentment in the ranks, especially in the state sector.
What cannot be disputed is that those coming into the profession — and those within it — are looking for different modes of working. A recent BBC article highlighted that Tuesday to Thursday is becoming the new office working week, with Friday being the most popular day for working from home.
Professions and businesses outside education have embraced this: recognising that flexibility is vital to attracting and retaining people. The communities that our schools serve are now working in a very different way and our model of employment and working needs rethinking.
“A request for part-time working is an opportunity, not a threat.”
Heads, SLT and governors will know the feeling when a colleague comes and requests to work part-time. In reality, this is a cause to be grateful. This colleague does not want to leave. They are retaining their commitment to the school, only working fewer days. This also opens the door to a new colleague bringing in their talents and expertise. It is an opportunity, not a threat.
As school leaders we worry about change: specifically, how parents will feel about a teacher leaving or reducing their hours. We need to alter the narrative around this. Doctors move from practice to practice. Solicitors change firms without fuss. Yet when there is a change involving a teacher, it is all kept quiet or not talked about until as late as possible.
If the ethos and leadership of a school are secure, parents will not be concerned about their child having a different teacher or two teachers rather than one. Each may bring out different aspects of a child’s development, instead of hindering them.
There may be a range of reasons why teachers wish to move to working part-time, starting with personal choice. They may be in a position where they do not have to work full-time: for example, if their income meets their needs. They may have family members who need support, and this become a priority. This means that they may request specific days of working to allow them to meet these needs.
“The wish to work part-time or flexibly is not gender specific.”
Likewise, they may have interests outside teaching that they may wish to pursue and develop. Perhaps an obvious point, but it is important to remember that the wish to work part-time or flexibly is not gender specific. Does our school culture provide for that? Could any member of staff — irrespective of gender — feel that they could change their working pattern and that their opportunities would be unaffected?
A good place to begin is the school leadership. Do any members of the leadership team work part-time, or is the expectation that senior leadership are full-time members of staff? Here is a good opportunity to model what is already here: could a role be shared between two part-time staff ? Does a role belong to a full-time member of staff because it’s always been done that way?
“School leadership could model effective part-time working or job shares.”
We cannot prepare our pupils for changing scenarios in the wider world unless we are modelling them ourselves. The world of business and other professions have already adapted: our model of employment in education is not changing quickly enough. If we want to be attractive to those considering teaching, as well as not losing those currently here, we need to rethink — and quickly. Certain aspects — at present — are less negotiable.
Most schools are in a given location, with formal learning taking place at given times. Our main holidays are at set times. Whilst changes to these are occasionally mooted — such as moving to five-terms — nothing has changed yet. As independent schools, so much is in our hands to change in terms of how we run and operate. It’s awe-inspiring — not a term I use lightly — in terms of what we could do when it comes to affecting real changes for our staff.
“Are we ready to make this the year we have meaningful dialogue about working practices?”
The pandemic showed that lasting change is possible within a short space of time: are we, as a sector, ready to make this the year that we engage in meaningful dialogue about our working practices?
Staff in 2023 want different things. A recent TES article suggested that “younger staff want gyms, cakes, dogs and life coaches.” In reality, all staff are embracing wellbeing: for themselves and for their families. Salary is a consideration but is not the only factor: a supportive work environment, personal and professional development opportunities are key.
They want flexibility and trust — such as the option to come in late if classes do not begin until later, or to work from home if they are not teaching at the end of a day. Neither practice is unreasonable. The future isn’t coming. It’s already here. And we are not ready — yet…