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Flexible working – After the pandemic, could we see more of it in schools?

Amid an ongoing recruitment crisis and the uncertainties of the pandemic, the time has come for schools to properly embrace flexible working, argues Emma Turner…

  • Flexible working – After the pandemic, could we see more of it in schools?

As the DfE prepares to launch a national flexible working strategy in the spring, and as the ongoing pandemic continues to reshape our traditional working practices, it would seem that flexible working is having something of a moment.

For many, flexible working remains inextricably associated with parental leave, or roles up to a certain level of responsibility. Yet for those willing to embrace new ways of thinking, it can provide innovative solutions, agile responses and an effective way of addressing difficult recruitment and retention issues.

Flip the narrative

Teaching is haemorrhaging talent at all levels of responsibility across multiple demographics, just as a headship recruitment crisis looms large on the horizon. We can’t afford to continue ignoring these factors and simply plough on with our outdated models of working, while refusing to offer our workforce the degree of flexibility they might otherwise find in the wider world of work.

There’s still relatively little awareness of what actually constitutes flexible working. It’s not just for colleagues who work part time, but can be applied to those in full time roles too. Its aim is to ensure that colleagues can contribute to the needs and requirements of an organisation, whilst simultaneously being able to work in a way that helps them to balance their commitments outside work, as well as their continued career development.

Individuals’ reasons for wanting to work flexibly naturally vary. Parenting is the most frequently given reason for flexible working requests, but caring commitments, additional study and health challenges are common too.

Whatever the reason, we need to flip the narrative from a ‘Full time is best’ way of thinking – where colleagues are encouraged to work as close to full time as possible – to one where different working patterns are actively encouraged. That way, we can ensure that our organisations include the widest possible range of voices, rather than just those who are able to work full time.

Having formed part of one of the UK’s first all-female co-headships over 10 years ago, I remain a passionate advocate for applying this type of flexibility within leadership. Unless flexible working is visible in all roles, we’ll never debunk the myth that flexible working and senior roles are incompatible.

A red herring

Flex works well when the leadership of an organisation is committed to making it work; when said leaders actively encourage flexible working, from initial advertising and recruitment, right through to equitable career development and progression opportunities.

The are some schools and trusts that haven’t let issues such as timetabling derail their commitment to flexible working. Through researching my book Let’s Talk About Flex: Flipping the flexible working narrative in education, I talked to multiple senior trust, school and department leaders, as well as many secondary timetablers, and it appears the timetable is something of a red herring when cited as a reason for not embracing flexible working.

Using flexible ways of working can, in fact, be a key strategy when seeking to build capacity within organisations. The recent pandemic and associated periods of staff absence have vividly highlighted how fragile our staffing structures are.

Building a flexible working staff ‘squad’, rather than a single full-time ‘team’, will afford schools the flexibility to respond to not just unpredictable and unforeseen events, but also those predictable changes to staffing that can occur during a standard academic year.

Thinking more creatively about how we can develop roles in our schools, and offering a broader range of working patterns for both full and part time staff, presents an opportunity for the education profession to address the recruitment, retention and wellbeing crisis within our workforce. So, let’s talk about flex…

Emma Turner is a former co-headteacher of The Latimer Primary School and currently Research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Academy Trust; her book, Let’s Talk About Flex: Flipping the flexible working narrative in education, is available now (John Catt, £12).

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