The Joy of Flex: recruiting and retaining teachers for the future

Michelle Thomason (@mikithomason) has written this excellent blog for us…

Not many professions have more qualified people outside of it than working within it.Sadly, the teaching profession appears to be one of them. With retention figures dropping year on year for the last five years, and with nearly half of all teachers entering the profession now likely to leave it within five years, no wonder the teacher shortage is now being called, in its slightly Daily Mail-esque way, a recruitment crisis.

With work-life balance being cited as one of the main reasons why teachers leave the profession, or don’t even enter it at all, the government have identified the panacea as flexible working. Kick-started by A Flexible Working In Schools Summit last year, it has also been written into official DFE policy here. Whilst this is a definite gain and much needed progress in working practices in teaching, flexible working, however, shouldn’t just be, by design, a neatly packaged solution to address an issue which many might cynically regard as a quick fix political strategy to get us flighty teachers to stay in the classroom.

Indeed, others have criticized it as a ploy to get teachers to work more for less pay or, oxymoronically, feel that the lure of an extra day off a week will see hordes of teachers stampeding the HR office demanding a change to their contract, creating more recruitment issues than it solves. However, it’s a fallacy to think that the 40% of teachers who, in a recent Teacher Tapp survey, said they would consider flexible working if it became an option, that this would suddenly translate into creating an even greater shortfall of teachers. In fact, with improved transparency and normalization of flexible working practices, this would likely improve the overall well-being of staff and be key to retaining and attracting effective teachers.

Obviously I can’t speak for every teacher and their motivations, but when a teacher puts in a request for flexible working, it doesn’t usually come from a self-serving place, rather one that actually allows them to continue to do the job they love whilst fitting around family life and other commitments. A good teacher is a good teacher regardless of whether they are part time or not – and a teacher who is happier because they can work flexibly is definitely going to be more productive, efficient and infinitely more loyal to their employer. Who doesn’t want that?

There’s also a misnomer about flexible working. Part-time contracts and job shares probably spring to mind as the most obvious but it doesn’t necessarily need to involve a complete rethink of roles – with a little bit of creative thinking and some jiggling of logistics, flexible working could mean that teachers take on compressed or staggered hours, or be allowed to work at home for PPA time. Whilst leaders may baulk at the prospect of logistical issues, the biggest challenge, I think, for a school is actually to shift its mindset to a culture of support for flexible working.

There is some amazing practice being demonstrated around the country but all too often, as Vivienne Porritt of #WomenEdLondon, observed at the recent LKMco event on flexible working in teaching, it is often not shouted about enough and that leaders, particularly female leaders, need to break what she calls the ‘good girl’ mindset in a bid to normalize flexible working practice. With leaders embracing the culture of flexible working in their own schools, perhaps teachers will stop feeling the need to ‘ask permission’ to work flexibly, particularly if the notion that the ‘bleed to succeed’ brand of presenteeism, as a marker of a quality workforce, is debunked.

Whilst flexible working has a discernible appeal for teachers, it also has very clear benefits for schools. Other sectors who have already embraced flexible working practices have reported a boost in productivity, and recent research has shown that teaching jobs advertised as flexible roles receive 17% more applications than those that are not. There is clearly a big appetite for this more progressive way of working. John Taylor Free School in Burton on Trent is a good example. Before it opened, head teacher Sue Plant chose to actively advertise all of the schools jobs as flexible roles. Inviting prospective employees to their recruitment event, 400 turned up and 160 applied. There are obvious cost benefits as well. Furzedown Primary in Wandsworth saved £60 000 last year by offering a 4 day week to their SLT and there are many more examples of schools getting creative with their flexibility to accommodate staff requests but also to reduce the need for expensive external cover arrangements.

On a personal level, I’ve been a strong advocate for flexible working since having my first child in 2009. Since then I have had experience of working flexibly in a variety of roles from initially a job share and then compressed hours in a middle leadership role, staggered hours to accommodate childcare arrangements, to a part time sabbatical to do a Masters degree.Now that I’ve chosen to go on to do a doctorate, I’m currently working 0.6 at two very different schools, both of which have worked hard to support flexible arrangements. In the future, I may look to take on a flexible leadership role, should the right opportunity arise.

Of course, it’s not always been plain sailing – there have been times when meetings at the end of the day have run on and I’ve had to walk out of them to collect my children, or the occasional breakfast meeting that has necessitated elaborate childcare logistics, and the CPD sessions or PPA time full time staff are afforded, but because they happen to fall on the days that I’m not there, I don’t get the advantage of. But, crucially, with supportive colleagues, these issues are thankfully minimized and has prevented me from being part of the most common statistic in teachers leaving the profession, that of women aged 30-39 year olds who go off to start a family.

Earlier this year, I was asked to speak about flexible working in teaching at the inaugural New Voices conference. The topic had been a popular one in a Twitter conversation started by one of the conference’s founders, Jane Manzone (@heymisssmith) and there was clearly a significant level of interest out there. Whilst there was a good range of existing research and case studies to draw from, in order get a snapshot of the current landscape of flexible working in teaching, I decided to conduct my own micro-study. The study comprised of interviews with twenty-five teachers, of both genders, from around the country across both primary and secondary.

Naturally, regardless of gender, by far and away the most common reason cited by teachers for requesting, or wanting to request, flexible working was around family work-life balance and childcare. For many, this was driven by the need to reduce the cost of childcare for children of pre-school age, but for others with older children, it was more about being ‘present’ as their children grew older. Others cited reasons such as wanting to undertake further studies, health reasons and looking after elderly parents but everyone had a defined reason for wanting to work flexibly with no one citing, as critics of flexible working have feared, that they might simply just ‘want to work less’.

A quarter of the teachers in the study reported mainly positive experiences in terms of flexible working citing value, respect and trust as key to this. However, the common denominator for each of these teachers was having a supportive head or line manager. For those who had rather more mixed or negative experiences, teachers commonly felt their schools were not structurally equipped to support flexible working patterns and, even if requests were accepted, they were made to feel they were a ‘burden’ or it was their responsibility to make their flexible role work. In a small minority of cases, blatant hostility to flexible working manifested in the form of workplace bullying and one teacher felt, in hindsight, she had essentially been being managed out of her job after her being flexible working request was refused.

It is clear that in order for the mindset set to change, there is still some way to go to integrate it as standard practice. Thankfully there are some brilliant organizations already set up to help support teachers and schools in their bid for flexible working and to change the narrative. For teachers looking to go back into the classroom part time or flexibly Return to Teach – a bit like a teacher employment dating service -matches teachers wanting flexible work to schools offering flexible roles. In addition, with teaching hemorrhaging women in the 30-39 age bracket, and addressing its corollary of a dearth in women leaders, The Shared Headship Network focuses on not allowing the ‘motherhood penalty’ to affect a teacher’s leadership career prospects by facilitating ‘talent partnerships’ in leadership roles and matching people with posts. Organisations such as Flexible Teacher Talent and The Maternity Teacher Paternity Teacher Project are also designed to support teachers returning to teaching through advice and continued professional development.

Over a school year, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. The likelihood is that many of these ‘very effective’ teachers are precluded from making this difference by the lack of flexible working options. With 77% of teachers saying they would consider returning to the classroom if they could work flexibly, coupled with the cost benefits to schools, particularly in the current funding climate, it is a way of working that not only addresses the current recruitment issues in education but one that could reinvigorate the profession in a sustainable way for the foreseeable future, and take it from a best fit panacea to standard employment practice open to all.

For further information and advice about flexible working whether you are a teacher looking to request it or a school leader or governor seeking to implement it, the following links are useful:

Return to

Flexible Teacher Talent

The Maternity Teacher Paternity Teacher Project

The Shared Headship Network @sharedheadship

National Education Union (letter templates, legal advice)

Edval (DFE endorsed timetabling software)

DFE guidelines and advice:

Michelle Thomason is a full time parent, part time teacher in two inner London Sixth Forms, freelance writer and doctoral student of Education at Bournemouth University.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.