The role of technology in supporting flexible working in schools

By | November 12, 2017

Term by term, the UK schools sector is edging closer to a significant teacher supply cliff-edge. A large segment of the teacher population is approaching retirement, historically low numbers of new entrants are opting for a teaching career, and every year many great teachers give up teaching or leave the UK to practise elsewhere.

The profession’s attractiveness to graduates is the product of lots of things, three of which are perceptions of workload, earning potential and the sector’s rigidity. As well as enticing young people to work in schools, there are also large numbers of former teachers who have left the profession, again for multiple reasons, but workload and childcare being prominent among them.

If working in a school could be reconciled with the desire and need of many in the workforce for greater flexibility, it could make a positive dent in the teacher supply problem all schools face.

‘Flexible working’ describes a range of practices of which many (most?) employers make use to retain a satisfied and productive workforce, ranging from the well-understood and deeply embedded (part-time working, job shares and home working) to newer and less culturally normalised policies like compressed weeks, sabbaticals, and staggered hours.

My experience is that schools are quite reluctant to do any of the former, and consider the latter to be pretty much non-starters due to the structural pillars of the job (when that bell rings at 9, there will be 30 children to teach, essentially).

Indeed, even those returning to part time roles are worryingly unlikely to stick around. 14% of primary part-time teachers and 19% of secondary left the profession in 2015. That’s a stark indication that there wasn’t enough genuine flexibility to make it work for them. Other concerns include feelings of isolation and being seen as uncommitted.

I attended a recent DfE roundtable event, exploring how a shift of culture in the sector could enable and support increased use of flexible employment methods and thereby help address a range of problems. It seems to me that there are four potential gains for schools:

  • flexible employment practices would contribute to the recruitment of more young people into the profession. This seems hard to deny – the growth of highly flexible employment opportunities elsewhere can only make the relatively rigid employment practices of schools seem less attractive and will already be informing the career choices of graduates;
  • flexible employment practices would reduce the gender pay gap, enabling more women to remain in better paying roles. This is vital before one even considers the demography of the profession. As I type, this pay gap means UK women have effectively worked their last paying day of the year;
  • flexible employment practices would ameliorate workload issues through a more proportionate work/ life balance, aiding retention of teachers. Part-time and job sharing can make this incredibly demanding job less deleterious of individuals’ energy to carry on;
  • flexible employment practices would allow ex-teachers to re-enter the workforce. This might be parents enabled to work again by some additional flexibility, or people who have ‘quit’ teaching given the chance to contribute something through a specific role.

Don’t take my word for it though, there are many better sources of expertise on the subject: the NFER’s recent teacher retention and turnover report is an excellent starting point, and plenty of examples of schools making a fully flexible approach work exist.

 

So what can technology do about any of this?

Some of the hurdles preventing more effective flexible working are cultural and some technical and systemic change will take many years. There are some quick wins to support a flex-friendly culture, however. It would be low cost, low risk and helpful in a general sense anyway if schools were to:

  1. Use Skype for Business or G-Suite Hangouts for every staff/ department/ CPD meeting, to allow flexible workers to attend and feel part of decisions and the school community. Both tools are very simple and now have functionality to record a video of the call, making access even easier for people who have other responsibilities to attend to at the time of the actual meeting. This simple act could significantly change what it feels like to be ‘part time’, as well as making a powerful statement about the value the school places on all colleagues’ involvement and contribution.
  2. Use tools like Microsoft Teams or Facebook’s Workplace to create genuine communities of practice beyond the staff room. If you’ve not seen either of these two ‘corporate social networks’ yet, you’re missing out. The ‘working out loud’ they enable, especially for distributed and time-poor colleagues is transformative. They are mobile-first and, unlike email, inclusive of the whole staff (should they choose to engage) through the document collaboration and discussion they enable. One of the major benefits is the ability to dip into areas of interest/ specialist communities, possibly in the ten spare minutes you have on the bus/ waiting to pick up your children, etc, without the formality of email. Both are free for education, assuming the standard O365 Microsoft licencing is in place. Not being in the building no longer has to mean not being part of the team.
  3. Use timetabling software which allows the school’s leadership to accommodate the needs of the flexibly employed from the outset rather than shoe-horning them in around other constraints. Timetabling is high on the list of reasons Head give for not offering greater flexibility. I suspect that a compromised timetable is also one of the reasons so many part-time teachers leave, having failed to achieve the flexibility they need. We’ve built timetables around fixed pillars for years (the unavailability of the local sports centre on a Tuesday, for example) because they are seen as the starting point for timetabling. This one isn’t impossible to fix.

In the longer term, as the sector has to adapt to the challenge of teachers having to work into their late sixties and as virtual environments for learning become increasingly sophisticated, different patterns and paces of work will have to be made possible through technology. I can foresee a combination of specialisation and part-time delivery which obviates the need to even be present in the same building (or time zone), but I will limit this post to the immediate, the achievable and the actionable things which all schools should start to think about.

 

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