How can we improve flexible working conditions for parents?
I made a choice. I chose my children over my leadership role. I was helped by the simple fact that I wasn’t enjoying my Assistant Headship after eight years, second maternity leave and a change of leadership.
It was an easy choice. In hindsight it was the right choice because I have enjoyed precious extra time with my children. However, if I had still loved my leadership role as much as I used to, I would have stuck to the career, most probably inadvertently feeling like a less adequate mum in the process.
Be a parent or a leader
Upon reflection, I realise I am rather vexed by the challenges faced by leaders and potential leaders, male and female, who wish to have a good work–life balance and a competitive career. Schools are all about children, except when it comes to your own and many, who have other reasons for wanting reduced or more malleable hours, should be given due consideration. I’ve known so many colleagues who would have made great leaders if only given the opportunity to work more flexibly.
“We believe flexible working can help achieve gender equality in schools by:
- allowing women to return to teaching on a flexible basis (for example after having children)
- improving the career progressions of women by offering more flexible opportunities at senior levels within the school system.”
While this is great news in principle, I am yet to see much evidence of these opportunities on my local school job website. Furthermore, throughout this post I have endeavoured to remain gender non-specific as these issues affect many male staff as well. By the statement above only including women, the DfE have conversely gone against the very equality they are attempting to uphold. These senior opportunities should exist for all.
How can we make it easier for parents to be leaders?
I have considered some ways in which employees can seek these flexible ideals and employers can widen their field when looking for highly productive SLT members.
Advice for employees
- Seek likeminded people who you could co-head/deputy with. This is easier said than done. I have come across several excellent SLT (Senior Leadership Team) job shares but people are still wary of them. Anyone I might consider co-SLTing with would need a similar mindset to me and share my educational ideologies as well as compliment my strengths and shortcomings to create an ideal partnership.
- When you visit a school for a job interview, find out the head or the governor’s views on flexible working. Ask questions, for example, “My childcare pick up is 5.30 so I am unable to stay at work past 5.00, would you consider this to be a problem?” Or, “Would it be a possibility that I could take my children to school on a Tuesday and pick them up from school on a Thursday?” I strongly believe that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. From experience, many schools are more interested in the right person and fit for their school and if you are that person, then there is probably some wriggle room in your contact hours.
- Be prepared to walk away! If a flexibility that works for you is not offered, then it is not the role for you. The euphoria of getting the job will soon change to horror 3 weeks in when you realise that work and life are anything but balanced and you are about to keel over from exhaustion caused by late night data and lunchbox building.
- Looking after you. If you do find that you have accepted your dream job and you know it’s going to be a challenge fitting everything in, make sure you’re prepared. Accept support from family and friends and book your children into childcare (if finances allow) once a week in the holidays for some guilt free ‘me time’ – you’ve earned it.
Advice for employers
- State on the job advert that job shares are welcome to apply. With the right candidates, the saying ‘Two heads are better than one’ applies. I was interviewed last year for half a job share headship which was a very attractive promotion prospect for a working Mum and although I didn’t get the job, I was amazed by the strong field in comparison to another head interview I had attended. Upon receiving my feedback, I commented on the standard of the field to be told that this had been the most popular recent headship with 17 applicants.
- Consider the work–life balance of your staff. If staff are happy then productivity improves. Parents who are torn between their families and work are rarely happy and regularly assume they are doing both really badly.
- Be open to new ways of working. The world of work is getting more and more flexible in terms of contact hours and if a candidate requests a four day week and they are the right candidate, then make it work for both of you. Don’t lose the right person because you are adhering to outdated parameters.
- Consider the size of the advertised job role. If the role was for a deputy with a class responsibility or SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) post attached consider if the role could be split. Could you have a two day a week SENCO and a three day deputy/assistant head? If roles have very clear boundaries, it is also easier to do a good job as you are not pulled in too many directions.
It’s time for change
The pressures of these roles makes it increasingly difficult not to face burnout or run head-first into some unexpected career changing accountably issue whilst on the road to burnout. Either way, far too many capable and professional SLT members are no longer in the role. Many of these people may have family commitments as a reason for taking a step back but why should staff who have worked hard to get to their position feel the need to do so?
A degree of flexibility would enable a staff member to keep their career on track and work part-time. I fully appreciate that it would not be best practice to fill a whole school with job shares but it concerns me that more and more people are unable to sustain the pace of life that being an SLT member brings.
Lastly, if you agree with these underlying principles and consider that these ideas may be feasible, please share this article with your SLT and governors in order to spread the word that there is another way forward.