Flexible working, Recruitment and retention

Why leave teachers out of the flexible working revolution?

Giving teachers the flexible working options everyone else now expects could stem an exodus, writes Emma Shingleton, and even tempt some back

Giving teachers the flexible working options everyone else now expects could stem an exodus, writes Emma Shingleton, and even tempt some back

26 Sep 2021, 14:36

When I was told on my PGCE that one in five teachers leave the profession within the first five years, I didn’t believe for one moment that I might be one of them. Yet I’m one of teaching’s many, many reluctant leavers, a retention figure somewhere in the DfE’s workforce spreadsheet. I loved being a primary teacher, but when I needed a more flexible approach to re-balance work and life, it became clear the profession would never allow it.  

Now in the private sector, I’ve watched over the past 18 months as the working environment has been transformed. Office-bound roles have now moved towards a more ‘hybrid’ way of working, combining working from home with perhaps a couple of days in the office. 

Employers who initially had no choice but to support the remote working transformation have now fully embraced it. And a good thing too, because employees who have discovered the benefits of flexible working for their work-life balance are in no hurry to revert to pre-Covid work patterns.   
Not so for my ex-colleagues, for whom an expectation of a full return to the classroom seems simply to have gone unquestioned. While other employers have made Covid-led changes permanent, education hasn’t followed suit. 

But why? Of course, children learn best in the classroom alongside their peers. Some flexible working arrangements are not practical for schools. But there’s far more to the job than what happens in the classroom, and not all of it needs to happen ‘on site’. 

Teachers were fully part of the national re-think of the office during lockdowns. Sure, some were in each day to look after key workers’ children. And sure, most of the media and political focus was on delivering online lessons and remote learning. 

The teachers have proven themselves, and so have the practices 

But they also planned and prepared lessons and resources, and collaborated with their teams to moderate and quality-assure that work. They marked work and assessed students, attended meetings and professional development sessions and conducted parents’ evenings. And more…all from their kitchen tables. With suitable equipment and the right motivation, there’s no reason they couldn’t keep doing many of these crucial activities more flexibly. 

Surveys have consistently shown a high level of job dissatisfaction within the profession, and the latest from the NEU is stark. It shows that one-third ‘definitely’ plan to leave by 2026. So the need for change pre-dates Covid, but the pandemic experience has accelerated the agenda. 

We conducted our own survey of 300 teachers (40 per cent of whom are parents themselves) about post-Covid flexibility in schools. Sadly, 82 per cent responded that the pandemic had not had a positive impact on their work-life balance. In fact, confirming the NEU’s findings, many said that it has made pressures and expectations worse. 

“Nothing has changed except expectations have increased due to so much lost learning,” said one. Another echoed the sentiment, saying that “extra pressure on us to close the gaps [has] meant working longer hours”. 

And it’s not just catch-up. Many teachers also cited “dealing with mental health issues of parents and children” as a whole package of higher expectations. 

But while the NEU survey shows some two-thirds of respondents blame government for a perceived decline in their professional status, ours is more optimistic. A massive 90 per cent of our respondents said they felt flexibility in schools could be improved, and they know exactly how to achieve it:  

  • Allowing teachers to work from home during their planning, preparation and assessment time.  
  • Continuing with online parents’ evenings.  
  • More virtual staff meetings and training.  
  • Being more open to part-time working/job shares.   
  • Allowing flexible start/end times to allow teachers to pick up and drop off their own children. 

Teachers told the NEU they felt the government didn’t listen to them. With a new top team at the DfE, a perfect opportunity presents itself to change that. After all, the teachers have proven themselves, and so have the practices.   

Creating a more trusting culture through more flexible working conditions could be the policy ticket to retaining more of our hard-working teachers.  

Who knows? It might even tempt me back. 

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