I am a mother of three small children and I work flexibly.
Now read that back.
How many of you read “so” instead of “and”?
If we are to really embrace flexible working then many of us first need to admit that our current perceptions, biases and assumptions regarding flex are probably a little outdated. Flexible working is not just the preserve of new parents or those in a particular role or level of responsibility. Having worked for 23 years in primary education and flexibly since 2004 in a variety of roles including assistant head, deputy head, MAT research and CPD lead, and in one of the first all-female primary Co-Headships which was set up 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, the statistics for how the workforce is structured is in stark contrast to our own. Figures from the DfE show that only nine per cent of men in education work flexibly compared to 13 per cent in the wider world of work and for women the figure is even more startling, 26 per cent in education compared to 42 per cent outside. The rigid and outdated structures and arguments we uphold in school as to why we cannot accommodate more flexible working patterns therefore need a rethink if we are to offer our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 their 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 aged 31-40 and twinned with that, up to one-in-four teachers are leaving the profession 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 first 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 five models to include part time, job share, 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. I often liken it to building a “squad” rather than a “team”. If we liken it to football then a team of 11 full-time players doesn’t provide the same breadth of skill, knowledge, experience or ability to be deployed differently according to the needs of each game. A team of only 11 also has a huge gap which cannot be filled easily should one of them have to leave the field. A larger squad of flexible workers is exactly that, an ability to flex the workforce to meet the needs of the organisation.
In my eight 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.
What we currently have is a perfect storm of 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 is rolling out its 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.
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.
We also need to ensure that our organisations are dynamic and inclusive workplaces which offer opportunities to colleagues with a wide range of lived experiences, not just those able to work full time. The world of flexible working offers so many opportunities for transforming our workforce into one which is not only an attractive option in practice, but modern, agile and innovative in its thinking.
Questions to consider for employers
- How many of the DfE’s five flexible working strategies can be found in your organisation and in which roles?
- Are all new or replacement roles actively analysed for flex potential?
- Are conversations around flexible working built into everyone’s appraisal/performance management/career conversations?
- What are our leadership team’s views and understanding of what constitutes best practice in flexible working?
- What lessons can we take from lockdown and associated remote working practices to support flexible working in our organisation?
- How do we currently ensure ongoing career development and pathways into further study or leadership for our flexible workers?
- Do we have a “bespoke solutions” approach for each flexible working request?
- How do we ensure timely and effective communication with our flexible workers?
- What flexible working options could we offer to our full-time staff?
Emma Turner is Research and CPD Lead at Discovery Schools Academy Trust and former Assistant Head. With over 20 years experience in the education sector she is a regular speaker on the success of part-time leadership and flexible working models. Emma’s book Let’s Talk About Flex is available on Amazon.