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As school teachers in England strike again over pay and funding, workingmums.co.uk speaks to school leaders about how flexible working can help boost staff wellbeing and aid attraction and retention.
There’s a lot of attention on school strikes in England this week. Pay and funding are the key issues, of course, but schools are also losing staff for other reasons, including lack of flexibility and a long hours culture. Some schools and trusts are trying to change that.
Kate Bradley, Director of Human Resources at the United Learning Trust, has picked up the baton from her predecessor Mandy Coalter, a flexible working consultant working in the education space. She sees flexible working as a key priority for all sorts of reasons. One is to address the gender pay gap in education. Education is one of the worst sectors for gender pay gaps in large part because 75% of staff are female, but the people in senior roles, particularly in the large trusts, are disproportionately male.
Diversity generally is another factor as are attraction and retention. Covid has accelerated change, says Bradley, and staffing shortages, particularly for support staff, are focusing the minds of school leaders. Having moved parent teacher meetings online, some are moving other functions, such as staff meetings, online too so staff can at least go home earlier. School leadership is vital to increasing flexibility, says Bradley. She states: “It’s about setting a vision and relentlessly making it happen.”
Chris Clyne is School Principal at Northampton Academy, one of United Learning Trust’s schools. The secondary school has 1,730 students and over 100 teachers plus more than 75 support staff. It recently launched a wellbeing charter which, Clyne says, is about ensuring students get the best possible experience at school. “We do a lot around developing the virtues and character of our young people and we ask our staff to role model our values. To do that and to be that bright face they have to feel good. If our staff feel happy and positive it radiates out to the children.”
The wellbeing charter is also about attraction and retention – Clyne mentions a recent advert he saw for a school which said teachers should be willing to work weekends and evenings. “It’s the polar opposite of what we are trying to do,” he says. “It gives the message that the school will take over your life.”
As part of the school’s work on wellbeing it took part in a flexible working pilot over the last academic year. It already enabled staff to work various part-time options, but the pilot focused on flexi hours. The school moved tutor time from first thing in the morning until after break. “Almost every teacher is a tutor so they had to be there every morning first thing. Making the change allowed us to build in time during the week where teachers could be free in period one or period five,” says Clyne. That meant teachers had some flexibility in the week to come in later – maybe to drop their own children at school – or to leave earlier. “We wanted to create a transient feel where people coming or going at different times didn’t matter. We trust them as professionals to do their job. The caveat is that they need to be in if they are giving classes.”
The pilot was trialled for half a term and the feedback was very positive so it is now part of the school’s culture. “New staff cannot believe it exists,” says Clyne.
It’s one thing to have a policy, but another to get people to feel they can take it up, however. So to give people the message that it was okay, it had to be role modelled by senior leaders. This was something Clyne himself did, for instance, going to London for a family meal and writing a message about that in the first week of the trial.
The school is not resting on its laurels. It continues to look for ways to introduce greater flexibility. All senior management meetings and morning briefings are done online. Senior management meetings start later to allow people to get home and dial in. Middle leader meetings are hybrid. Parents evenings used to be online, but this year, due to the cost of living crisis, they converted back to in-person as the school offered families a free meal alongside teacher meetings.
Staff can get holiday during term time too, for instance, to go to Glastonbury or to attend their children’s sports day. Clyne also sends continuous messages that it is ok not to work outside working hours. He doesn’t send any emails after 5.30pm or during half term. “If you set the culture it will cascade down,” he says.
Clyne has presented the school’s experiences with flexible working to all schools taking part in the United Learning Trust’s leadership conference. Its wellbeing manifesto has been shared group-wide. His deputy has also spoken to other school leaders. Although some are apprehensive, Clyne says their experience shows trusting people brings big returns. He admits, however, that six years ago his school was not in the position to be able to do what it has done on flexible working. Senior managers needed to develop a vision and purpose first and ensure staff were aligned to a common goal.
Clyne says he has not had a single complaint from parents. The school is already fairly flexible in terms of part-time staff and it tries to provide continuity by making sure part-time teachers work set days and sharing classes so young people are used to the idea that they may have more than one teacher for a particular lesson.
The school reviews its flexible working policy every July with the senior management team. One idea was to do an administrative survey to see what could be taken off teachers’ workload to free them up to focus on teaching. “We have a continual razor sharp focus on making things better for our staff,” says Clyne, who has been Principal for three years.
It’s not just at larger trusts that attempts are being made to make schools more flexible. Antonia Spinks is Co-CEO and Director of Education at Pioneer Educational Trust which manages three schools in Berkshire. They started their flexible working journey several years ago after launching an annual staff engagement survey which showed demand and concerns about stigma linked to not being in front of classes five days a week. The Trust then started working with the Department for Education’s Flexible Teacher Talent initiative which aimed to support schools to feel more confident about doing things differently.
It developed a holistic approach to flexible working which, as at United Learning, envisioned it as part of its diversity and inclusion work. Spinks says the idea was to normalise flexible working. “There’s so much research showing the stigmatisation of mums wanting to work flexibly,” she says. She views flexible working as part of attempts to address the gender pay gap in schools, which is in large part caused by the disproportionate number of men in senior leadership roles. “Until men see flexible working as normal we won’t address the gender pay gap for women,” says Spinks.
Similar to United Learning, the Trust has created a flexible job design request process which allows flexibility for staff with no loss of pay by building flexibility into the school timetable. This is outside the realms of formal flexible work requests, for instance, for part-time or job shares and is not linked to workload – Spinks says the Trust doesn’t want staff to feel they have to work flexibly to manage their workloads. If someone goes part time, their duties must be reduced in line with their hours across the board, although they can choose to attend the full number of parents’ evenings. If they do so – and there is no pressure to do so, they will be paid overtime.
Flexible job design is built on a culture of trust and has clear guidelines around flexible working. It means teachers can ask for a non-contact period a week so they can leave the site. Other members of staff are also able to request flexibility, where this is possible, for instance, exams officers can work regularly from home and science technicians can do flexi hours.
Spinks says Covid has made it easier to move things online if necessary, for instance, on a snow day and made teachers more confident about teaching online.
The Trust was also selected as a Department for Education flexible working ambassador school which meant it worked closely with six schools or federations providing specific advice on flexible working approaches. One of these was a special school and, although the scheme has finished now, the Pioneer Educational Trust has been working to develop a bank of materials for how flexible working can support special schools which will be launched later in the year.
Spinks says flexible working is not just about having happier members of staff, but about making schools better. For instance, one special school they worked with hired a semi-professional footballer from lunch until 6pm to work with a group of young boys who loved sport. The work could be done around the footballer’s job and met the needs of the students, including their after school needs.
For Spinks flexible working, clearly outlined, has huge benefits for schools. Job shares, for instance, allow schools to retain experienced teachers and mean students benefit from the skills of two people rather than just one. She says some schools are still reticent, however, worried about the unknown and ‘catastrophising’. She states: “There’s a long way to go, but lots of schools and trusts are doing really good work around flexible working and it will grow and grow. Schools need to use it to their advantage and see it as a positive strategic move to attract and retain brilliant staff and make schools better.”