Flexible: adjective. capable of bending easily without breaking.
Flexibility: noun. willingness to change or compromise.
Flexible working: noun. Flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.
Flexibility is a core expectation of teachers. Schools, parents, colleagues and students expect us to be flexible. Flexibility is the foundation of effectively working with others. Relationships and partnerships cannot be nurtured, cannot thrive without some give and take.
As teachers we are flexible in changing how we think, how we plan, teach and assess as our profession is reformed. As professionals we are flexible in changing our responsibilities, our timetables and our duties to the needs of our school. As humans we are flexible in personalising, individualising and bespoking what we do to meet the specific needs of children.
So why is the system so inflexible for us?
The data on flexible working in schools says it all:
The UK has in excess of 250,000 qualified teachers, who are not working in our schools. They are qualified to teach but they have ‘chosen’ to leave the system. When you scrutinise the data further, the main demographic are women, women between 30-39, women who have had children.
In fact, they have not ‘chosen’ to leave, they have instead ‘chosen’ their families. They have ‘chosen’ to be a human, a parent, first and a teacher second. Choice suggests there was some freedom in the decision-making, when in fact their hands were tied. They were handcuffed into making a choice between the conflict of their heads and their hearts.
The dominant rhetoric is that on returning from MAT leave, lots of parents and carers are given the ultimatum – come back full time or you lose your TLR. Or yes you can go part-time but your TLR will be split to reflect this as if you are on a 0.6 FTE contract then you will only be doing 60% of your leadership responsibility. Neither seem very fair to me.
Another interesting piece of data is that if you mention in a job advert that you will consider flexible working relationships in your school, then you receive 74% more applications. Just by mentioning flexibility you attract a different talent pool.
One of the most thought-provoking professional learning opportunities I have attended was a #WomenEd event I co-arranged with EdVal. On a Saturday a few Junes ago, they trained 100 women on the principles of timetabling. The Timetabler in a school is often from a certain demographic, and to stereotype, also from a particular subject suite. This training empowered women in leadership who perhaps had not considered timetabling as a career route to understand the principles. More importantly it empowered them to know how to challenge The Timetabler and make a timetable work for flexible working requests.
Being inflexible forces people to choose. Being inflexible forces teachers to leave.
We need to stop saying our ‘recruitment crisis’ in teaching and we need to reframe it and call it what it is, a ‘retention crisis’. We recruit and train teachers, but our attrition rates for early career teachers are embarrassingly poor, and this is further compounded by our shocking retention rates for established, committed professionals.
Last month, in 9 minutes our profession was changed. In 9 minutes everyone was expected to work remotely, to work flexibly. In 9 minutes the business cases for why schools cannot enable flexible teaching arrangements also exploded.
Another good thing that has come out of this crisis, is that there is more appreciation for how hard teachers work, but another is that there is a spotlight shining on the impact school closures are having on women. Women are shouldering the bulk of the additional workload, women are being more flexible than ever before. We know that a high proportion of key workers are female, we know that schools are staffed by 2/3 women.
There is concern that the pandemic will further exasperate gender inequalities. With presenteeism and visibility being part of the unconscious bias of who is being the most productive, how can women be present and visible when they are picking up the additional responsibilities of home schooling and the increased domestic demands being placed on families?
I am wondering what allowances schools are making for their staff-parents and carers, for parent-teachers, for single-parent teachers? I am also wondering if schools have re-written HR documents such as flexible working/ remote working policies?
If one good thing comes out of this pandemic, it is that schools have embraced flexible teaching and remote working arrangements. The workforce has shown that it is doable. If teachers can be flexible and flip their thinking and their delivery overnight, then we need the system to be as flexible for them in exchange.
I am very hopeful that when we return to school that school leaders, school governors and school timetablers will bring their new learning about how they flexed their schools in a crisis to the forefront of innovating our profession. It would be such a shame and real a missed opportunity for change, if when the pandemic is over, we resume to our traditional practices and inflexible mindsets.
Flexible working in schools, flexible teaching, is not just for a crisis, it is for life.
If we committed to enabling flexible working in our schools we potentially have a talent pool of 250,000 who may be encouraged to return to do what they are trained to do, teach our children, but to do so on their terms. So let’s take advantage of this opportunity to flip the narrative, to rewrite the script and to model that flexible working is wholly possible as a teaching workforce.
Teachers are capable of bending easily without breaking, but we need to fix the leaky talent pipeline in our schools. Teachers are willing to change or compromise, but are our schools? Flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, we need to stop putting school’s’ needs ahead of teachers’ needs.
Follow the @womened @sltchat #slowchat on #flexibleworking this week: #WomenEd #FlexAppeal #SLTchat