Is now the time to embrace flexible working? | Education Support
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Flexible working - teachers and education staff

Is now the time to embrace flexible working?

8th March 2018

With the recruitment and retention crisis getting worse, a simple solution is to do more to support women stay in their jobs. We look at the experiences of women who have asked for more flexibility and share some top tips to help makes positive changes to working practices.

Two years ago, Laura added to the increasing number of female teachers leaving the profession. Research from the Policy Exchange revealed 1 in 4 teachers who leave – around 6000 a year – were women from the 30-39 age group. 

Laura fell into this group, choosing to leave after receiving little support from her school once she became a mother. “If an employer could give women a bit of flexibility even just for a couple of years whilst they adjust to motherhood, they would be repaid later in terms of loyalty and experience as mothers choose to stay in the profession,” she argues.  

After returning from maternity leave and switching to part-time working, Laura couldn’t fit the increasing demands of being a curriculum leader alongside her role as a new mother. Last minute timetable changes and cover requests would often lead to expensive childcare re-arrangements; heavy workloads left her with little or no time for family life. She gave up her leadership role.  

“I had not been there when my girls sang at the local Town Hall. I had not been thee where they ran in the first sports day race; I didn’t attend their Christmas assembly. I decided to ask the headteacher for time to see my children at their primary graduation. She refused.” After 20 years in the profession, Laura walked away.

With the latest teacher training recruitment figures from UCAS revealing a continuing decline in applications and the DfE announcing a costly new scheme to re-train ex-service personnel as teachers this week, many are pointing out that there is a much simpler solution to the crisis. 

Anne, a former head of department from Manchester, considered leaving her job last year. “Why aren’t women simply being supported to stay in their jobs? We have thousands of excellent, well-qualified female teachers leaving the profession and little is being done to reverse the trend.”

According to Jane, a primary teacher who received a lack of support for part-time working after her maternity leave ended, the former Education Secretary’s Justine Greening’s speech at the Flexible Working School’s Summit last year was inspiring. “as well as groups such as #Women’sEd which has proved vital in developing a support network with professionals around the UK as this article explains. 

“Schools need to work together more collaboratively, sharing good practice and prioritising flexible CPD for female staff,” Jane argues. “We brought in managers from other employment sectors to talk to SLT. They explained their flexible working practices and how they made for a happier, more productive workforce. Sometimes seeing what other leaders do in different sectors helps escape the tunnel-vision teaching has with its antiquated working practices.”

"We also offered female staff early-morning and lunchtime CPD sessions aimed at helping to encourage women to apply for leadership roles. So few ever applied - especially after returning from maternity leave. It resulted in a real culture change; many female staff applied for promotion over the next two years." 

Tips to make positive changes to working practices

While the sector clearly has a long way to go to reduce the gap and adapt flexible working approaches for staff, some female teachers share with us their tips on how their schools made positive change:

  • “My school teamed up with the nursery opposite and offered part-subsidised childcare. Mothers were not timetabled in the last school period of the day so they could leave early to spend extra time with their children.”
  • “My school set up a women’s group to monitor the conditions for female staff in school. Any concerns about pay and progression or flexible working could be reported anonymously. We asked for external union support which helped us to clarify where the staff stood legally.”
  • “Teachers have very little time but one thing we did was invite local female leaders into schools to talk to our female members of staff over lunch, once a week. They were a bit like mini Ted talks but helped women to believe they could aspire to leadership positions. Very few females were applying for leadership roles at the school – we hope this will help to encourage more to apply.”
  • “Joining groups online like #WomensEd are a massive support. You feel like you’re not alone and can see other people going through the same dilemmas. It gives an extra level of support.”
  • “Knowing your rights is key. At joint union meetings, we regularly invite the Women’s Officer from unions to speak to our staff to explain their working rights, particularly with regards to maternity and pay progression, clearly to staff. It empowers them during meetings with leadership.”
  • “Meeting up informally as a female staff collective is really something. Often, you don’t realise that they are experiencing exactly the same issues as you. Strength in numbers is a powerful tool when approaching heads about flexible working.”
  • “Invite in non-teaching sectors to speak to your staff about flexible working. What they do is often miles ahead of what teaching does!”

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