The education sector lags behind other industries in terms of flexible working. Twenty-eight per cent of female teachers work part-time, compared with 40 per cent of all female employees in the UK. For men, it is 8 per cent in the education sector compared to 12 per cent nationally.

A 2019 study by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 36 per cent of secondary teachers and leaders would ideally like to work part-time but only 19 per cent currently do. This only included respondents who would both like to, and could afford to, reduce their hours - so absolute figures were even higher.

A Teacher Tapp survey of more than 5000 teachers early in 2020 showed that 67 per cent thought that their headteacher/manager would be unlikely to allow them to work part-time. Seventy per cent said that working part-time would damage their future career prospects. Interestingly, men were 10 percentage points more likely to say that their career prospects would be affected.

"Resistance to flexible working often comes from worries about strategic duties and management of staff."

The UK’s schools are catching up on flexible working and the benefits it creates for recruitment, retention, diversity, succession planning and productivity, but there is still a way to go. Amongst primary leaders, the main concerns centre around consistency and experience for pupils if staff are part-time. In secondary schools, the biggest barrier comes from timetabling concerns. At a leadership level, resistance to flexible working often comes from worries that it would “make it impossible to undertake strategic duties, manage staff and lead teams effectively” (NFER, 2019).

The Covid-19 lockdown, and subsequent measures and restrictions, may have altered the landscape somewhat. Senior leaders without children or caring responsibilities, or those who are not usually primary caregivers, may have had a glimpse of what it is like to share childcare while working from home. Schools have been led remotely, teachers have been trusted to work from home, leaders have led teams without being on-site or all together in the same room. Many ways of working which were once seen as impossible and unthinkable, had to work for more than a term of lockdown and some of this has continued into the “new normal”. However, there may have been negative implications too; this was not flexible working at its best. It was unplanned and reactive, the best results come from school cultures which are proactive and positive about flexibility.

In 2016, I was working as a senior leader in a large London comprehensive school. I was safeguarding lead, head of sixth Form, I led on data and assessment and curriculum including the timetable and line managed a number of faculties. I was the first person on site in the morning and last to leave at the end of the day, as well as working most evenings and weekends. There was a clear, if unwritten, policy that senior and middle leaders could not work flexibly. After having my first child later that year, I wanted to work part-time. I was shocked by the lack of part-time leadership posts, and indeed even classroom teaching posts, available. I was an effective, experienced teacher and school leader but there was nothing available that allowed me to work flexibly as a leader. The more I spoke to others about the situation, the more it became clear that I was by no means alone. Women aged 30-39 are the biggest group leaving the profession, many forced out by a lack of flexible working opportunities. This at a time when teacher recruitment and retention is in crisis.

"I was frustrated that teachers and leaders were leaving the profession or working below their capabilities."

I took a part-time teaching role at an independent school. I love my school and the role and was subsequently given additional responsibility for Oxbridge admissions. But I remained frustrated by a situation that was leading to teachers and leaders leaving the profession, working below their capabilities, or being forced to work full time if they wanted to progress their careers. It is a situation which perpetuates the gender pay gap in the education sector, sin addition to the obvious repercussion for recruitment and retention, and I resolved to do something about it. I met Lucy Rose on the Teach First Innovation Programme. Teachers were invited to make submissions about issues affecting the education sector and develop research and projects to address them. Lucy was taking a break from teaching after having returned full-time to a senior leadership position after the birth of her first child because she had not been allowed to work flexibly. Her return to work hadn’t lasted long and she too was seeking to address the lack of flexible working in education, particularly for women returning from maternity leave to less senior roles than they had held previously.

So, we set up Flexible Teacher Talent, an organisation that tackles the issue from both the chicken and the egg perspective. We help teachers looking for flexible roles in schools and we support school leaders to introduce and develop flexible working. We provide training and consultancy support for schools as well as our campaigning and research work.

As part of the Department for Education’s advisory and steering groups on flexible working in schools, as well as our work with schools and individuals, we have developed a unique perspective on the issue.