Flex, please: How can teachers achieve better work-life balance?
Work in a school and want better work-life balance? While flexible or remote working has become the norm for many professionals since COVID-19, it's rarer to see the same opportunities available for school staff. We spoke to several experts on how the education sector could improve the wellbeing and retention of teachers.
In recent weeks, a National Education Union (NEU) poll has told us that 44% of teachers plan to quit within the next five years, largely due to ‘unmanageable’ workloads. Dr Mary Bousted (NEU) commented: “We remain a profession with amongst the highest number of unpaid working hours, and we are still well above the international average for hours worked by teachers.” And yet for many of us, post-COVID ways of working have led to an increase in agile and remote working, plus the possibility of flexible working arrangements.
Teachers do, of course, need to be on-site to teach children but in many cases, schools continue to be reluctant to allow teachers to do all the other work that comes with the role, off-site. And with schools having high expectations of parental involvement in their children’s education and in school life (especially at primary level) teachers themselves are often not given time to attend their own children’s school events, plays, concerts, or even do pick-up/drop-off at the school gates from time to time themselves.
I would love to see more schools consider how teacher timetables might accommodate a better balance for teachers (being able to drop their children to school once a week perhaps), or more off-site working so parents can pick their children up from school occasionally and balance their hours later in the day or over the course of the week as a whole.
I also think parents need educating to support schools to accommodate job-shares/part-time working arrangements for teachers, without believing that their children will somehow get a raw deal if their child has job-sharing teachers.
Great leadership in any organisation is founded on trust and this need to be shown from the top down. Teachers aren’t feeling trusted by the public and government (see poll results again) but Head Teachers and school leaders can choose to support flexible working and trust teachers to continue to be brilliant while marking and planning at home for instance. Strong role modelling is also a really big factor, and more shared headships or other flexible leadership would be great to see.
In a post-lockdown world, it’s also true that many more people are seeking a better work-life balance and not ‘just’ mothers. With a drive for more men and people without caring responsibilities to want flexible working arrangements, schools are going to need to respond to this if we’re to retain people in the profession.
We reached out to several experts in education for their take on teacher work-life balance.
Amy Brookes and Lucy Helan
Co-founders of the Shared Headship Network
We want to make teaching and leading schools a sustainable, long-term career, so that the best people stay in teaching and school leadership - and do not have to choose between important personal and professional commitments.
A key change we advocate for is that teaching and leadership jobs are advertised as open to flexible working arrangements, including job-share applications. In addition, wellbeing initiatives need to address things that genuinely impact work-life balance. Day to day flexibility is key to this (for example, accommodating caring commitments). Also, schools need to be smart about use of technology to enable certain aspects of school life to be more flexible (for example, online staff briefings or governors's meetings).
Follow the Shared Headship Network on Twitter @sharedheadship
Lead Economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)
An unmanageable workload is the most-cited reason ex-teachers give for why they left teaching. Our analysis of survey data shows that teachers work more hours during term time than similar individuals in other professional occupations work in a typical working week. While the longer holidays balance this out over the course of a year to an extent, long and intense periods of long working hours can sap motivation and make managing other aspects of life alongside (e.g. family life) more challenging. Teachers are more likely than other professionals to say they would prefer to work shorter hours.
However, 'workload' is about more than just working hours. Workload is also about the tasks teachers are asked to carry out, the nature of the work, intensity of tasks and deadlines and also about teachers feeling in control of their work. Indeed, our analysis finds that greater teacher autonomy is associated with higher workload manageability, job satisfaction and intention to stay in teaching, but not with lower working hours. But teachers tend to report having lower levels of influence over their work compared to similar professionals.
Teachers’ autonomy over their professional development goals is most associated with higher job satisfaction. This presents a significant opportunity for school leaders to consider how they design and deliver professional development in their schools, harnessing the benefits of increased motivation from teachers having greater involvement in their professional development goal-setting. Key to this is helping teachers see the relevance of professional development PD to their individual needs, pupils’ needs and the wider organisational goals.
Part-time and flexible working is not an ideal solution for relieving workload pressure, because it could result in teachers devoting more of their own, unpaid time, to the non-teaching aspects of the job. However, for many teachers the availability of part-time and flexible working opportunities is important for well-being, work-life balance and retention.
There is considerable unmet demand for part-time working among teachers, particularly in secondary schools. Our research has shown that a lack of part-time and flexible working opportunities is an important factor contributing to some secondary teachers leaving the profession and is preventing others from returning. School leaders taking a proactive approach towards part-time and flexible working rather than responding to teachers’ requests on an ad-hoc basis is key to making more opportunities available and making them work for teachers.
Follow Jack on Twitter @JackWorthNFER
Co-founder of Flexible Teacher Talent and part-time teacher at Putney High School
We need better access to flexible working opportunities in schools, at all levels and for everyone. For many teachers and school leaders there is a stark choice between working full time/career progression and leaving the profession or stepping back. Where this is the case we lose both experienced/effective teachers and leaders and we become less attractive as a profession to new recruits and early career teachers.
Flexible working doesn’t just mean working part time, it can mean PPA time off site, early finishes, late starts, working from home, flexible time off when needed and more. If people can work flexibly they can spend time doing other things they want or need to do. This can be childcare, other roles, hobbies, appointments, other caring responsibilities or just resting and winding down.
There is also a gender element to flexible working. If it’s only “for mums”, then this perpetuates the expectation that they take on the lion’s share of childcare and also in many cases slows or prevents their career progression. If everyone, including dads, at all levels, including headteachers can have the option to work flexibly then career progression looks very different and also sharing of parental responsibilities may be more equal.
There is a complex relationship between workload and flexible working and we don’t advocate reducing hours to reduce an unmanageable workload because those kind of unrealistic and toxic expectations often result in people working the same amount but for less pay - and using their non-school time to work for free.
Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning, and Research Lead at Trinity Academy Cathedral
Schools are run on traditional and often arcane models with regards to timetables and staffing structures, and this can act as a barrier for schools when they want to build staff teams to serve their student communities. We know that workforces and leadership teams with greater diversity are more effective, so school leaders need to work hard to find creative solutions to make the school day and working practices effective for all.
We must: decrease workload; consider (and embrace!) flexible working; provide powerful professional development and, above all, find new solutions to old problems.
Follow Jennifer on Twitter @funkypedagogy
As our country begins to rebuild after COVID-19, it's time to break the cycle of inequality. Part of this means ensuring schools and pupils have the resources they need, and are supported by policies that give them a fighting chance to reach their potential. Our manifesto highlights our 11 commitments to eliminating inequality in education, including fairer digital practices in our school system.