Having a fulfilling family life alongside working is an ideal many of us are striving for. So from the outside, being a teacher can seem like a dream job if you have children. When you think of the potential for a healthy work life balance; the shorter day, the holidays, (oh, the holidays); then teaching would come out near the top. Of course if you are a teacher you know the reality is quite different.
As I re-enter the childcare system, I am again throwing substantial chunks of money at childcare. Having a child, or a caring responsibility can mean a having significant shift in your personal outlook and priorities on life – as well as a significant change in your financial circumstances. It would be very frustrating then to discover that your workplace may not be flexible when it comes to discussions about alternative working arrangements, though this is common in teaching.
A few years ago, Policy Exchange carried out a survey that showed a quarter of 30-39 year old women don’t return to teaching after maternity leave. No wonder there is a serious retention problem in schools. Flexible working would suit other demographic groups too, NFER research shows that better part-time working arrangements prevent increasing the number of older teachers from leaving secondary schools. Whilst schools are struggling to recruit, why aren’t they more flexible places to work?
The problem is a gendered one
The challenges faced by teaching staff with childcare/caring responsibilities are manifold given the workload and the nature of the work: from needing to start or finish the working day outside the hours of childcare provision, having time for marking and planning, a greater expectation placed on non-contact time, a commitment to run an after school club, as well as keeping up with the reforms and changes that happen whilst on leave.
This disproportionately affects women. 80.2% of all school staff are female according to the 2016 schools’ workforce census. The proportions are more pronounced in the primary phase as 84.6% of teachers are women compared to 62.5% at secondary – though note, still the majority! Teaching assistants are overwhelmingly female at a whopping 91.4%. It would seem critical that schools consider their working policies through a gendered lens far more than they do.
It is further shocking (or perhaps not) to discover that a gender pay gap exists in teaching. According to the latest figures, there is currently a 4.8% pay gap in favour of male teachers in secondary schools, and a 1.9% gap in favour of men among primary and nursery staff. So if you are the lower earner in the relationship, it stands to reason that you would be the one who might not return back to work, especially when childcare costs represent the equivalent of a second mortgage.
Room for promise?
But perhaps things are at last looking up, Justine Greening announced plans to encourage flexible working in teaching last October, and interestingly at the same time published a myth busting guide for schools. Myths such as “the teaching profession simply does not lend itself to flexible working; if I advertise a teaching job part-time, I won’t get any applicants; flexible working is for other sectors – working at home and staggered hours just can’t happen in teaching; flexible working is impossible to timetable; part-time teachers and leaders just aren’t as committed”.
The myths went on. Reflecting on these would suggest that the greatest barrier to flexible working is actually cultural and not systemic.
How can you shift the culture of a school to be more flexible?
Much of the culture in a place of work stems from your boss, either the one at the very top, or the one right above you. A creative leadership could the views and experience of its teaching staff on board, so that as a community they could support each other to do what it takes to get the job done in a way that suits staff with all kinds of home life needs. That is an ethos-led strategy.
I like these innovative suggestions factoring in the actual pressures of life: like offering free, independent financial advice to enable staff to understand the implications of different working arrangements, the impact on pensions etc before making decisions. Or offering childcare on site. What seems common practice in some schools, for example, time for planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) being allowed at home, is unheard of in others. Increasing the number of part-time roles and job shares, the latter of which could allow teachers to play to their strengths and share their skill sets/interests, would benefit women particularly.
The key is to retain experienced staff and to continue to support those leaders or prospective leaders for whom flexible working would benefit. Considering that teachers leave their jobs all the time for pastures new once a timetable is in place, would it be so challenging as to timetable in such a way to both accommodate flexible arrangements, assuming that would help retain staff and therefore ensure a greater consistency for students?
What else is at play?
There are some roles that this is a greater challenge for, those teaching towards exams, those in leadership positions but potentially it is not impossible.
The view of some commentators however is, it is not so much the inflexibility of teaching as to the workload demanded from it. They state it is the job as a whole that is not sustainable. If attention was given to making workloads more manageable, then perhaps retention would not be such a problem. You might then find that flexible working practices would become a cultural norm and hey, we might even have more women leaders.