Many words have been written about the challenges of recruitment and retention for the teaching profession and clearly it is not getting any easier. Towards the end of my time as a secondary head in a large mainstream school it was almost a full-time business liaising with agencies, managing applications, talking to those you wanted to stay and those you might bring in. All of this against a backdrop of a significantly reducing budget and wanting to maintain the range of courses. And so on.
Looking around social media and the education press these are very common experiences, and I do not intend to replicate them here. I have my own views on some of the solutions which gain a lot of attention and may share them in another blog some time. This blog focuses on some of the reasons which do not gain much traction in the press, and do not seem to be acknowledged much by the profession either.
When I came out of a permanent role I decided to have a look around how the rest of the world operated before going back in. The opportunity to think things through could easily be squandered if I let it happen. So, amongst other things, I joined a gym. And there to my astonishment I found a gym full of people at 10am on a Monday morning. What were all these people doing here? The answer from what I could pick up via the various conversations around the place was that many of them were working from home. This came as a revelation, particularly given they were in the same spin class as me at the time. Beyond this, you had people working part time, compressed hours, shared arrangements and various other forms of flexibility. Downstairs in the café, and all around the local area, there was a mixture of people doing a bit of socialising, a bit of work and anything else in between.
In some cases I imagine there probably were some people taking liberties with their employer (or employees), but for the most part it presented as though there was a good deal of professional trust. As long as you hit your deadlines, dialled or Skyped in when necessary a lot of employers do not seem to care where you are or when you do it as long as it is done. There is also an acceptance that an open plan office is not always the most productive environment either.
I was a full-time secondary head for over 10 years. In many ways the role started pretty much as it finished, with my own office, wearing a suit and tie, a PA and working hours which were hard to defend with family when I started and persistently crept up over time. People used to ask me how I did it and looking back now I am not sure.
Over the course of those ten years the rest of the world moved on. Few of my contemporaries regularly wear either a suit or a tie to work, and may be regarded as acting more than a little strangely if they did. Working from home for some of the time as part of a permanent arrangement, or as and when needed, is part of life for the majority of people I know. The most common exception to this is other people in public sector industries such as health, social care or transport, but even then it can depend on whether they are front line staff all of the time. For those who have the flexibility, if it was withdrawn a lot of them would look elsewhere. Many organisations and industries understand this, schools do not even as the present crisis deepens.
My experience was always that those who came to work in schools from another career took some time to get used to the pace, and in some cases never did. A large secondary school going at full throttle is both an intoxicating environment and an exhausting one. One thing I have not missed is the sense of permanently working to exhaustion, and often way past it. I’m well over 30 pounds lighter than when I finished my last permanent role and all the associated health benefits that go with that. It was an in-joke at one school how much weight gain the average member of staff would put on in their first year. At the end of that year I was not laughing. The intensity remains but it can, and needs to, work hand in hand with flexibility. This is not commonly understood.
Two terms into consultancy and I have an open mind as to whether I will pursue a full-time role again in the future. So far, so good and I will see where this takes me both in and beyond education. If I do go back in I will have a much better sense of what I would be relinquishing and the decision-making process that others go through when considering entering education or staying in it.
Accountability, workload, curriculum, resources are all big factors but the flexibility on offer is very limited. As an issue it is not taken seriously enough to the detriment of the profession. The rigidity of school life still has its advantages, for example for those with young children themselves, but as the world has moved on even the term time only nature of the work is no longer an advantage particularly with the increase of the pension age. There are some aspects of the job that cannot be done anywhere else and even those things which can, emails and other admin, often end up being completed in schools rather than staff feeling they can go home and start again. Cultures vary between schools in this respect.
Compared to what I see from the rest of the working world the discussion about flexibility in teaching has a long way to go, and would remain an issue even if all else was resolved. The limitations of the secondary school timetable have much to do with it but there is a rarely a discussion about how the set up of the whole school could be changed to accommodate flexible working. How many schools have a third of more of their teaching staff working part time or on any other form of flexible arrangement? This is no longer just about female staff returning from maternity leave but an issue for the whole workplace and the profession in general.