Would more part-time and flexible working for teachers be a good or bad thing for teacher supply? Carole Willis looks at the data

The teacher supply challenge in England’s secondary schools continues to grow. This week we launched our new report on teacher retention at an event chaired by journalist Laura McInerney. One of the key recommendations in our report is that the secondary sector needs to improve its offer on part-time and flexible working.

Earlier this year, McInerney pointed out the risk that this could make teacher shortages worse. If all the teachers who say they would prefer to work part-time suddenly move from full-time work, it would exacerbate the staffing gap that needs to be filled.

She’s absolutely right that it’s a risk, but our research evidence leads us to think there are important reasons to be more positive about the overall effects.

We tracked teachers after they left teaching and saw that many full-time leavers from secondary schools ended up working part-time in their new job. It suggests that unmet demand for part-time work is driving some secondary teachers to leave the profession and seek more flexible work outside.

If they had instead been offered the opportunity to work part-time in teaching, it may have encouraged some of them to stay in the profession. Longer term, teachers who would have left the profession without being able to go part-time may be more likely to shift back to work full-time in the future. Keeping these teachers teaching could retain their expertise and reduce the risk of losing them from the profession permanently.

For this to work, part-time working needs to be a sustainable option. Rates of leaving the profession are high among part-time secondary teachers, suggesting they find it challenging to sustain the demands of part-time working alongside their other responsibilities.

A lack of part-time and flexible working opportunities is also one of the key barriers facing inactive teachers who want to return, particularly for career breakers.

School leaders say the complexity of secondary school timetabling is the main reason why part-time teaching is more difficult to accommodate. Plus, attitudes and cultures in some schools mean that flexible opportunities are not as widespread as some teachers would hope.

The next few years are a critical time for taking action

While we would encourage school leaders to proactively find ways of accommodating greater flexibility for staff, teachers who would like part-time work do need to respect the challenge school leaders face of ensuring the school is fully staffed at all times. Not all part-time teachers can work a four-day week with Fridays off. Teachers being flexible on what arrangements they are willing to accept would make the task of senior leaders who are open to accommodating flexible arrangements much easier.

But maybe some of the unmet demand for part-time work isn’t actually about wanting to work part-time at all. Maybe commentators are right when they say it’s not inflexibility, but the never-ending demands of the teaching job. Perhaps it’s much more about how manageable a full-time job in teaching currently is.

A typical teacher works fifty hours a week during term time, which is longer than those in other professions. While the school holidays counterbalance this a little, long terms of intensive work can make work-life balance and family life difficult.

The secondary teacher workforce has a large group of teachers approaching their mid-thirties, which is when part-time employment peaks. It’s also when teaching careers tend to come with more responsibilities and the demands of family life are at their height for many teachers. This means the next few years are a critical time for taking action to make the job of a full-time teacher more sustainable and to provide opportunities for more flexible approaches to accommodate the spike in demand for part-time working. The prize on offer is improved teacher retention, easing the growing teacher shortages that threaten to affect the education of so many pupils, and making teaching a profession that new recruits want to be a part of.