The past year has been filled with several calls for schools to offer more opportunities for part-time and flexible work to teachers. The reasons are straightforward:
- Teaching is gripped by a recruitment and retention crisis, both at the national and local scale. More teachers are leaving the classroom – and often the education sector entirely – than are being recruited into it.
- Many leavers report that their main motivations for leaving was the excessive workload and corresponding working hours, with their new roles conferring more leisure time.
- At the same time, 43% of leaving teachers are moving into roles that remain within the educational sector but outside the classroom. These movers want to maintain a link to the sector in some capacity but would also like more flexibility and leisure time.
- Teachers in general claim that they’d like more opportunities to work part-time in schools.
It stands to reason that an increased number of part-time working opportunities in schools would improve overall teacher retention. A corollary of this is that the present epidemic of teacher stress, burnout and disengagement from the profession could be somewhat abated.
The past year has also been filled with much reasonable pushback to this plea for part-time work:
Sustainability – At a population level, if all the teachers who claimed they’d like to work part-time were afforded such an opportunity, then the total teacher workforce would need to double in size to accommodate present demand. In an era of recruitment crisis, such an expectation would be the height of madness.
Manageability – The main issue senior leaders voice about part-time and flexible work is that it increases the complexity of school timetabling – which is already a nightmare for leadership and admin staff.
Practicality – Part-time and flexi-work teachers face numerous challenges. It can be difficult to remain fully looped into school communication and information channels. Ensuring that the work-life balance promised by part-time/flexible working isn’t eroded back towards full-time responsibility can also be a battle.
These challenges are by no means trivial – but nor are they insurmountable. We propose that new technological solutions can be applied to neutralise these challenges, allowing the benefits of an increase in part-time working opportunities to shine through.
Much of the data gathered on teachers’ preferences to work part-time is gathered in self-reported questionnaires and surveys – most recently from the NFER and Teacher Tapp. The disunity between what somebody says in a survey and how they may actually behave are well documented in social science methodology. After all, having asked “Would you rather work less?”, without any substantial qualifiers, opportunities to reflect or calculated forecasts of personal finances, most people are of course likely to say “Yes”!
This doesn’t invalidate the self-reported data, but it does show that conclusions drawn from it may overestimate the likelihood of teachers actually switching to part-time work if given the opportunity. It also emphasises the need for more robust and varied data sources if we are to understand the actual demand for part-time work among teachers.
As Geoff Barton, General Secretary of ASCL recently observed “We need a much clearer sense of… part-time and flexible working patterns that technology should make easier to put in place”. Part of maximising the value of technology in this context will be learning how to use it to understand the interests, motivations and behaviours of teachers in relation to flexible work.
One way of measuring active interest in part-time working would be to look at rates of application for such roles through online jobs platforms – TeachVac already gathers data to this effect. Teacher Booker also has similar data on what types of work teachers indicate that they interested in – as well as application rates to part-time jobs they’re invited to.
Platforms for digital surveying have also allowed researchers to move beyond simple item responses of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, to allow them to produce rich responses that can be analysed for keywords and clauses that are used as proxies to indicate strength of commitment to a proposition.
Use of such tools can give us a sense of what the consequences of embracing an increase in part-time work opportunities could have.
Timetabling is a major challenge for schools. One of the main reasons is that much of it is still conducted using arcane software, combined with on-the-fly pencil and paper deductions.
Fortunately, there are now software solutions that make timetabling much more straightforward. Using such software could make the complexities of timetabling much more manageable.
It is true, nevertheless, that no timetabling software will ever be able to guarantee all part-time staff a 4-day working week with Fridays off. However, it will be able to generate sets of possible timetabling structures that can be discussed with teachers interested in part-time work to reach an equitable solution for both teacher and school.
‘Practicality’ covers a broad range of issues, but broadly they’re all about communication.
Job-sharing teachers can face difficulties communicating regularly and efficiently with each other, often relying on hasty text messages or Post-It note updates. Part-time teachers can face the same issue with keeping in touch with the rest of their team(s).
Multichannel instant messaging services allow live communication between teams to be safe, rapid and well-organised. Rather than relying on slow, often confused and out-of-sequence communications via e-mail, team members can quickly engage each other in a live chat to provide or receive information. Part-time teachers can also be ‘beamed into’ team meetings using online video chat services.
In terms of flexible work, a major challenge for schools is maintaining regular contact with a loosely-defined ‘pool’ of teachers in their local community. This informal pool is often composed of former staff members alongside willing and capable contractors. Communicating efficiently and regularly with such a diverse group without a stable technological solution can be very challenging. However, using Teacher Booker Talent Pools, schools can communicate work opportunities, from part-time and short-term to long-term and full-time at the click of a button.
A further upshot of this is it allows schools to manage what will no doubt become an increasing trend in the teacher workforce – teachers moving ‘perm-to-temp’. By consolidating their alumni community into a dynamic online Talent Pool, schools will be able to avoid losing entirely some of their best staff. Indeed, as the recent NFER report on the teacher workforce emphasises, schools often lose their best science, maths and MFL teachers late in their career to part-time work opportunities elsewhere. Retaining teachers in these target subjects will be key for schools if they are to manage the impending recruitment shortage in these areas.
I’m sure nobody claims that increasing ‘part-time’ work opportunities is a panacea that will solve all recruitment and retention issues in teaching. Clearly there are deep structural issues that will require correspondingly deep systemic change to resolve. However, if wider access allows individual schools to hold onto some of their best teachers and have an easier job of attracting new ones, then part-time working will have cured some problems for schools and their students. Who could argue with that?