Figuring out Flex

Flexible working is finally on the agenda, officially- hurrah! As last week saw the emergence of a comprehensive set of documents for teachers to use to support flexible working applications here, this seems like a promising turn of events for the national landscape, and one that I fully embrace.

I had two careers before coming to teaching; I worked in banking as a senior manager, overseeing over 300 staff in the retail sector of the bank. I also worked for Unison, a public sector union, to represent employees through disciplinary procedures, grievance meetings, tribunals and flexible working requests. I heard many stories from people who wanted to, for whatever reason that was personal to them, work part time. It was fairly commonplace within the company that I worked within, and applications were made with a general feeling that the organisation would approve the request.

Teaching is a little bit different. I think it would be naive to overlook the pressures and challenges that face school leaders when we consider staffing constraints, the early point in the year that key decisions need to be made involving timetabling etc, the fact that staffing, whilst placing limitations upon the movement of staff in school, the presence of something that can only be likened to that of a football transfer window is somewhat odd. You get a job in February, you don’t get to start that job until September. And yet, you’re expected to stay fully invested and motivated until that time. I was a little baffled to see that a) there were very few part time workers and b) that all part time workers were classroom teachers.

Early requests: request as early in the year for provision to be put in place, particularly with regards to timetabling; avoid split classes wherever possible to ensure that their time in school is spent purposefully, and not chasing staff to find out the content that needs to be taught next. Time is your most valued commodity and this is supercharged when you work part time- you do not want to spend all of the time you are not in work, figuring out how you will track teachers down as soon as you get back into work. Further to fuel timetabling that works, explore the capacity for ‘double up’ timetables at secondary (if you are a Curriculum Leader, this is a powerful way to not only develop staff but keep workload down): a timetable that avoids giving teachers every year group, and instead, they teach 2 groups of Year 8, two groups of Year 10. Not only does this reduce planning tasking, but also means that members of the department can work in clusters to improve subject knowledge (I remind you of Chapter 3 here).If classes do need to be split, as a head of department or even colleague, liaise with that member of staff to outline how content can be taught without a constant back-and-forth approach to cover units.

Bolster up the benefits: Outline exactly why you will be a tenacious addition to the team as a part time employee. Sing up your increased productivity, the time you will have to read research or distil notes from listening to podcasts that you can share with your colleagues, to the fact that you will use the time to explore interests, developing you both personally and professionally. Don’t be tempted to scatter your application with an apologetic tone of, ‘I can use the day to catch up,’ or ‘even though I’ll be part time.’ This is a positive adjustment; make sure that the recipient of your letter can recognise that with language like, ‘driven by the balance,’ or ‘motivated to explore,’ or ‘galvanised by other interests.’ 

Assume a yes: structure your application so that it is assumptive of agreement, by anticipating objections. That the days selected will support the school to operate, that there will be minimal readjustment required and those amendments that will take place, will ultimately improve the standards within the department or school. That this will have a positive impact on school budget. That you are proud to work for a school that takes such a proactive, flexible approach to supporting their staff to maintain a balance between work and life.

A no is a question: If your application is declined, view it as an opportunity to provide a solution. Work with your employer, not against them, to work out a scenario that could meet both of your needs. Consider where there is flexibility, but also, where there is not- don’t agree to something that leaves you feeling as though you’ve negotiated a solution for the school, but not for you. For instance, could a late start or early finish work as opposed to having a particular day off? Is there a day where you could come in late and take up after school duties or intervention sessions instead? Take the time to return to the table to discuss options, and remember that it usually isn’t personal, but the requirements of the school at an operational level.

Here are some handy figures for handling the objections:

If we do it for you, we’ll have to do it for everyone

In my case, I am asking for flexible working to fit around my children as they grow. For others, it will be different and I think that every case will have someone with their own needs and requests. I don’t  feel that you would be under an obligation to give it to everyone, as it wouldn’t fit the needs of the school, but not everyone would want it. 30% of the UK’s working population (8.7 million people) wants flexible working but don’t yet have it yet; it would be a true testament to this school to champion that, and so encouraging to both new teachers joining teaching but also new staff joining the school.

It’s too difficult to manage on a timetable within schools

I would say that it is far easier to manage flexible workers if you know in advance, and this is why I wanted to put in a request before Easter, with plenty of notice for next year’s timetable. I aim to be flexible to help us to find a way to make it work. Perhaps I could resource a series of writing lessons for the one lesson a week that my classes would have without me? Or if I share a tutor group, I can ensure that I take registration on the days that I am working in school. 

You’re a senior/ middle manager: we need to have you here on a full time basis

Having a flexible working arrangement or job share can actually lead to a far more effective way of management; it means that staff have more than one point of contact, and myself and my second in department/ designated deputy/ co -worker in the job share can really develop our communication skills to manage people well, and consistently; this will ultimately make the department/school a satisfying place to manage, because staff retention typically improves with good management and results in great staff retention. Several studies into remote working and flexible working show that 95% of employers say it has a high impact on employee retention. There are a number of schools making it work, to the extent that dare I say it, management is an improved process because of the collaborative way in which they are approaching leadership.

You’ll be less productive if you’re not in school

20,000 businesses around the world found that 72% of them reported increased productivity as a direct result of flexible working, and we could take so much from that as a school. As a teacher, I am incredibly driven and used to working flexibly around my children and so you have absolutely no need to be concerned about my productivity. I ate breakfast, got through my emails this morning, all whilst having the remnants of toast crusts thrown at my head.

You have a core timetable and need you here for set lessons

A: We can agree core hours when I’d be here, and my PPA time could accommodate for other times, if it is feasible. It would mean that I can pick up and drop off my children some days, which would mean the world to me. I’m happy to put together a series of suggestions that would mean I am making a solid contribution to the department, but that would also work for the school and my requirements. I would be keen to support with KS4 intervention, for example, and in addition to my GCSE classes, I would be happy to take intervention within my timetable which could work more flexibly and lift the pressure on staff for revision sessions later on and over the holiday periods. In addition, the administration that I could complete for the department would elevate masses of workload pressures on staff: I could complete mock paper marking once moderation is complete, or create standardisation documents and any other strategies that would improve our consistency as a team. There are many ways that O could contribute to the teaching taking place in addition to the time that I teach in school. 

We would need to see working examples of this in action to understand what it could look like

Brilliant! Great to hear you are open to paving the way for teachers to find a sense of balance in their lives. I have heaps of case studies in this book that I’ve read….

Part time staff are an untapped resource in many schools, but with the right support, can be the strongest members of any departmental team because the balance that they have sought is fulfilled, and as a result, they can be the most productive, most positive forces that we have.

This blog is an unedited excerpt taken from my book, Stop Talking About Wellbeing: A Pragmatic Approach to Teacher Workload, out January 2020. You can pre-order here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stop-Talking-About-Wellbeing-Howard/dp/1912906481

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