Flipping the flexible working narrative

Emma Turner explores the benefits of flexible working from the viewpoints of school leaders and teaching staff, and challenges traditional working practices and part time prejudice

We currently face the perfect storm, a recruitment and retention crisis, a rigid outdated model of working patterns and a lot of potential bias or misinformation about what constitutes flexible working. In order to address this nationally, the DfE are rolling out their flexible working ambassador schools from Spring 2021, alongside a suite of leadership webinar resources to support schools and school leaders in helping to make informed and strategic choices about how they can utilise flexible working strategies to improve recruitment, retention, wellbeing and career development.

If we are to really embrace flexible working then many of us need to admit that a lot of our current perceptions, biases and assumptions regarding flex are probably outdated. Flexible working is not just the preserve of those who are new parents or for those in a particular role or level of responsibility. Having worked for 23 years in primary education and flexibly since 2004, including as assistant head, deputy head, MAT research and CPD lead, and in one of the first all-female Co Headships  over ten years ago, I am a “veteran flexer” and can attest to the fact that it can and does work at every level within an organisation.

However, the pervasive narrative that it is somehow unworkable or unwieldy endures. When we look outside education, we know that the statistics for how the workforce is structured is in stark contrast to our own. Figures from the DfE show that only 9% of men in education work flexibly compared to 13% in the wider world of work and for women the figure is even more startling, 26% in education compared to 42% outside. The rigid and outdated structures and arguments we uphold as to why we cannot accommodate more flexible working patterns therefore need a rethink if we are to offer our workforce the same benefits they can find outside education  when trying to balance home and work commitments and progress in their careers. What we cannot do is to ignore the fact that the largest demographic to leave teaching after retirees are women age 31-40 and twinned with that, up to 1 in 4 teachers  leave within the first five years. We are haemorrhaging talent and although flexible working may not be the panacea or silver bullet, it may well be a way in which to retain talent and expertise which would otherwise have left the building.

If we are to really grasp the flexi nettle then we  need to understand what we mean by flexible working. Mandy Coalter, author of “Talent Architects” describes the basic flexi work principles as “Where, when and how much”. The DfE describes 5 models to include part time, jobshare, staggered hours, compressed hours and working from home. Both approaches however highlight the fact that flex is not just for part time work. Alterations to working hours and patterns within a day/week and opportunities to work from home or off site are just as open to full time workers as our part time colleagues and can reap huge benefits in terms of staff morale, wellbeing and help to actively demonstrate positive professional trust in our colleagues.

Another benefit to flexible working is that it provides inherent flex in your organisation which a totally full time staff do not. What we have seen in recent months during the pandemic, and its impact on increased absence, is the exposed fragility of our staffing structures.  A larger squad of flexible workers has the ability to flex the workforce to meet the needs of the organisation. In my 8 years of Co Headship I upped and downed my days depending on the needs of the school and my own commitments at home. In my current role as CPD and Research lead across a trust, I do exactly the same. What my employers get is a dynamic ability to respond to the needs of the organisation, and what I get is an ability to remain in a leadership role and to continue to contribute and progress in my career.
We need to ensure that our school leaders and workforce see the benefits of innovative approaches within flex such as phased retirement, creation of new bodies of work with new job titles beyond the current narrow scope, additional time for study, and “multiflexing” or portfolio careers where colleagues work part time in one organisation but may have additional roles elsewhere which ultimately enrich their work in their current role due to cross pollination of skills, ideas and expertise. The world of flexible working offers so much in the way of opportunities for transforming our workforce into one which is not only an attractive option in practice but modern, agile and innovative in its thinking. So, let’s talk about flex.

To learn more or order a copy of Let's Talk About Flex: Flipping the flexible working narrative in education, by Emma Turner (priced at just £12), please click here.

About the Author

Emma grew up in Leicestershire and attended Liverpool John Moores University where she studied Science Education. She has taught in schools across the county and has been a Local Authority Lead teacher. In 2002, she became a consultant for the National Numeracy Strategy, supporting numerous schools. In 2004 she joined The Latimer Primary school where she spent the next 13 years, initially as a classroom teacher, moving on to become assistant head, then deputy head and finally forming one of the UK's first all-female co-headships which ran for eight years, and where Emma wrote and delivered training for staff at all levels across the county, as well as complete induction programmes for NQTs through her work with Affinity Teaching School Alliance.

After 20 years in primary teaching, Emma left to join Discovery Schools Academy Trust where she is currently their Research and CPD lead, devising and writing training for staff at all career stages, but specialising in CPD for early career teachers. She is the founder of 'NewEd - Joyful CPD for early career teachers', a not-for-profit approach to CPD to encourage positivity amongst the profession and help to retain teachers in post.

She is a columnist at the TES, an ambassador for The Gender Equality Collective, and a member of the WomenEd community, regularly presenting at events and writing contributions. Emma is an advocate of balance in leadership and family life and she regularly speaks at events across the country on how part-time leadership and flexible working can be a hugely successful model in organisations. She is also the self titled 'Chaos Coordinator' of her home in Leicestershire where she lives with her infinitely patient husband Tom and their three young children.