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Flexible Working Hours are Needed to Ensure Women are Represented in Leadership

Damian Hinds is on the right track with his proposals to address the teacher recruitment and retention challenge – but there’s still something missing...

  • Flexible Working Hours are Needed to Ensure Women are Represented in Leadership

The Education Secretary Damian Green’s initiative to boost teacher recruitment and retention rightly received a cautious welcome from commentators and education professionals alike.

The proposals, which range from financial incentives to remain in the profession to support for teachers early in their career may have been a long time coming, but look promising.

Naturally there is a question mark over whether the £130 million a year earmarked for the plan is enough to fund all this activity.

Maybe we should also take with a pinch of salt the proposal to simplify the accountability system. This was interpreted by some to mean that test and exam results would be downgraded as a measure of success.

Recalibrating accountability would be a bold and dramatic way to address workload and chronic teacher supply issues areas where schools struggle to get recruit and retain staff – but much more detail is needed before we can assume that the impact of three decades of high-stakes testing can evaporate in a puff of smoke.

The gender gap

However, the part of the Hinds proposal that really resonated with me was the recognition that a significant part of the retention problem is down to women leaving the profession at a certain point in their careers, often citing parenthood and work/life balance responsibilities.

As a woman who gave up a full-time career in journalism post children 30 years ago, I feel this keenly and know it has been overlooked for too long.

I wouldn’t say that my professional life has necessarily been worse for having quit my job as a national newspaper political correspondent.

Pursuing a more flexible freelance career meant I went down several paths that might otherwise not have been obvious, including working at 10 Downing Street and ultimately writing and campaigning on education issues.

But in common with many women who give up full time work to take on more caring responsibilities, I passed up promotion and a professional leadership role.

It was only when I went back to review my own life for a book I wrote about working mothers 10 years ago that I realised my story was true of so many other women.

Stark statistics

Over two fifths of women in employment work part-time compared to 13% of men. Two and a half million women in the UK are economically inactive and 89% of these can’t work due to caring responsibilities.

So Hinds’ proposal to encourage more flexible working and matchmaking services for teachers who want a job share is welcome, but doesn’t address a second inconvenient truth, which is that women who give up full-time work usually sacrifice the chance of promotion as most leadership and management roles are full time.

Indeed the DFE press release even states that women returners who want to “remain in the classroom” will have the option to be channeled into what the DFE press release states are “non leadership career routes”.

Flexible leadership

But that isn’t really good enough. Too many women leave the workplace after having children, but women also remain poorly represented at the most senior levels in society, making up barely a quarter of chief executives and senior officials and only 40% of managers.

And the figures are no better in secondary education where 64% of teachers are women, yet 62% of head teachers are men.

The reasons for that are complicated; the caring penalty, career breaks, guilt, school culture and women’s own sense of imposter syndrome, which can make us reluctant to push ourselves forward, as the Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg put it in her book Lean In.

So by all means try and keep women teachers in the profession – but in a way that also allows them to progress up the ladder.

Let’s see more flexible leadership roles for women (and men) as well as flexible teaching jobs. Recruitment and retention matters, but so too does equality.

Fiona Millar is a columnist for The Guardian and a co-founder of the Local Schools Network; for more information, visit fionamillar.com or follow @schooltruth.

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