A conversation I had with the inspirational Vivienne Porritt was the catalyst for me to seek feedback from staff who had benefited from flexible or part-time working.
Over the years, in my privileged position as Headteacher, I have consciously made the effort to try and accommodate requests for flexibility or part-time working. It’s part of the bigger picture of what it means to really support well-being; how the overarching ethos and culture of a school means far more to people’s well-being than any tokenistic add-ons such as free tea bags in the staffroom.
I’ve long held the view that if we as leaders look after our staff, then they will look after our children. Sometimes it’s hard to know where your beliefs or approaches come from. But there are sometimes key incidents which stand out as having contributed to why you do certain things. One incident from my early days as a teacher sticks out clearly in my memory and I think is significant in how I try to deal with staff. I remember being unwell and having to call in sick. Whilst my colleagues and some senior leaders were supportive and caring, I clearly remember the Headteacher interrogating me over the phone about how unwell I was and how soon I thought I would be able to return to work. I still remember how awful that made me feel. I’m pretty sure this shaped my approach to hearing all kinds of news from staff; to show empathy when listening, to hear their news and respond in the way that is appropriate for them. When someone’s unwell, you wish them better. When someone has a crisis at home and asks to come in late, you ask if there’s anything else you can help with. When someone says they are pregnant, you share in their positive news. I’d have hoped that would be obvious, the kind, human way to behave. However, sadly, I’ve heard of too many school leaders who respond with how this news will impact on them and the school – “Can’t you manage this week and then get better at the weekend?” “Who will we find to cover your class?” “You’re pregnant again?” “” I have to be honest – sometimes I do have these thoughts! I think it wouldn’t be human to have them and recognise the burden that the news means to us as leaders. But that’s part of our role, to inwardly take this burden and take whatever steps we can to support our staff, without them feeling guilty. I’ve always believed that properly supported, they in turn will reward us with added goodwill and loyalty.
The missing part though, was that until my conversation with Vivienne Porritt, I’d never sought this feedback from staff. I’d never tried to measure the impact of my good intentions. So Vivienne’s conversation acted as the catalyst for me to ask for feedback about how flexible or part-time working had benefited them. I really was just looking for confirmation that staff saw a positive benefit. I honestly wasn’t prepared for just how large the impact was. I hadn’t appreciated, for example, that several staff reported that were it not for the possibility of some form of flexible working, they would not just have left the school but that they would have left teaching all together.
Having gathered this feedback, I summarised much of this information for a report to our school governors. I’ve decided to share the summary with a wider audience, to be part of a conversation with other school leaders, and hopefully influence more leaders to take a similar approach because ultimately we all gain by doing so. I hope that this summary serves to reassure other leaders that you stand to gain much more than you may lose in short-term inconvenience.
In case anyone has continued reading this far and they’re sceptical about how to overcome the obvious challenges of flexible/ part-time working, the rest of this blog is a summary of the benefits and some detailed, first-hand experiences from a few of the teachers within the context of one school.
At Elsley Primary, 32% of our current teachers currently work part-time, or have done historically. Reasons have included: caring for children, elderly or disabled family; returning from maternity or adoption leave; undertaking further studies; maintaining businesses or other work commitments; and preparing for retirement. The proportion of the workforce who have benefited increases even more once short-term flexibilities are included, for example in supporting staff to work following a bereavement, by offering a phased return to work, sometimes over several weeks. And, to further widen the proportion who have benefited, we also offer days in lieu for staff who give time for leading after-school clubs. Over the last few years the range of clubs has blossomed with high take-up, high quality and satisfaction from children, and happy staff who benefit from the flexibility of an additional day or two for whatever purpose they choose. The vast majority of our staff have taken up this flexibility.
Although part-time or flexible working brings challenges, it is a long-term investment. There is clear evidence of long-term benefits which offset short-term challenges. Having part-time or flexible working brings benefits to the individuals themselves, the pupils within the school, the school as an organisation and the education sector as a whole. Part-time or flexible working helps retain staff and maintain stability, encourages diversity, and allows the collective knowledge and expertise of the staff to continue to grow. There is also more goodwill and commitment from staff to the school.
Benefits for Individuals
Part-time arrangements allows individuals to balance another priority. Sometimes arrangements are temporary, eg a child starting school, or extended phased return following bereavement or other crisis. Other arrangements continue over years. Staff say without part-time working they would have left teaching so have benefited from staying in employed within education, and from continuing their professional development.
Benefits for the school
Retention is high and staff are more effective having been able to, for example, deal with grief before fully returning, or balance family time. Some excellent staff would otherwise have left teaching but actually increase their days as circumstances change. The organisation retains their unique and significant contribution.
Benefits for pupils
Pupils benefit from stability of known staff. Pupils – especially the most vulnerable – could otherwise experience turmoil if trusted adults regularly leave. By retaining teachers, pupils benefit from professionals who continuously improve their expertise. Part-time working also means there is a wide-range of life experiences, which ultimately benefits the pupils.
| Teacher 1
I have positive feedback about how I (and my family) have benefitted from flexible working. I’m pleased to have an opportunity to share this feedback. I am often saying to family and friends (some of whom are teachers themselves) how fortunate I am to have such understanding and supportive leaders. I think the approach you have aids staff retention as well (which seems to be tricky in London) – for example when looking to buy a property on the outskirts of London one of my criteria was to be commutable to Elsley.
When coming back from maternity leave my request to drop my days down to three was granted. I believe this helped my mental health and wellbeing as working full time when sleep deprived and missing a young child was not what I wanted. I have been fortunate enough to build my days up from 3 to 4 and then to 4 and a half – this was all done at my request I did not feel pressure to work more days. To be honest if my initial request for 3 days had been denied I would have at least looked into other options such as doing part time supply as I felt it was important that I was able to spend more time with my baby/toddler. I have continued to feel supported for example when my daughter has been ill or there has been a childcare crisis there has been no hesitation that I may have time away (although I have always done my best to ensure that any time off is as short as possible). As a result I feel like my family time is recognised as important to me by SLT and I know I can be open and honest about any requests or situations that may arise in the future. I have also been able to progress in my career despite being part time and have been part of several new projects since returning to work.
I was part time for 3+ years at Elsley and since have moved on to teach five days a week but remain part time in order to be able to pick my children up on a Friday.
This has allowed me to continue to run and grow my business over the last few years in addition to spending time with my young family. Being given the flexibility to work part time has definitely meant that I could teach, as when I started teaching a full time post was not an option as my youngest child was still just a baby.
| Teacher 3
I am happy for you to pass on my comments about how I have benefited from the flexible approach to working which you have instilled in Elsley Primary School . The caring ethos of dealing with staff circumstances is a shared value of your SLT.
Firstly when I needed to change my working hours due to my home circumstance of caring for my late mum you made it as easy as it possibly could be. I felt at ease about asking you and it was a simple process which enabled me to feel comfortable with my decision. I was able to reduce my hours within a short period of time which was very helpful to me at the time.
When my mum was seriously in hospital you gave me the time to be with her; knowing that I could just be with her and look after her and to have the time to do that meant a huge amount.
Following on from when she passed away I benefited greatly from a phased return to work .This enabled me to gradually get back into the work environment and to feel able to cope well with being back at work.
Having this support at crucial times helped me stay in the profession and at Elsley of which I have been a staff member for 20 years!
| Teacher 4
Thanks for offering flexible working arrangements at school. The main arrangement I have in place is working 4 days a week. This has enabled me to take my adopted children to a therapy that enabled them to approach their attachment issues, which I’m pleased to say has been really successful. Our family would be considerably different without it. I continue to work four days in order to make sure we continue to build on that success. Without the flexible arrangements I would almost certainly have had to leave Elsley – what could be more important than supporting your children’s needs? I would have had to find work that allowed me the time to take my children to the appointments they required. In addition, you have always supported my request for leave to see my daughters in their school productions or class assemblies. This has been a really special experience for my children as it has allowed me to show them how I value their achievements and for them to see that my wife and I think they are really special. An important experience for any child, but for mine this is their first experience of being valued and it helps to undo some of the negative impact of their earlier life experiences.
On the surface, allowing me to work 4 days may seem an inconvenience to the school, but the impact on my family is literally life changing so I can’t thank you enough for your flexibility.
I feel that as you and the SLT are flexible at Elsley, I want to be more flexible in return. For example in working overnight on residentials or in being available to help with issues in school (such as last minute cover, covering clubs etc). In a sense, you have led by example and without having to say anything you’ve encouraged a mutual flexibility.
So, that’s my conversation starter. I recognise that this summary and examples are from just one school. How does this approach fit with what you have seen and experienced? Are there any common themes? Do you disagree? I’d love to hear…