Making the case for part-time working at ALL levels

This blog is a shameless mix of academic data, first- and second-hand experience, stories and speculation. But I think it’s an issue that hasn’t had the attention that it deserves, and I hope that by voicing it, I can start a dialogue and prompt others to share their experiences… and start a process through which we can begin to see part-time working at ALL levels of teaching as a valid, valuable and reasonable way forward.

In a recent survey for my Doctoral research on balancing parenting and teaching, of 1603 respondents, 28% of respondents (all teacher-parents in UK maintained schools) said they were working part-time at the time of the survey. There was a distinct gender split, with 33% of the female respondents saying they were working part-time compared to 9% of men. 87% of the respondents agreed with the statement, ‘teachers should have the opportunity to go part-time at key points in their lives/careers’. Whilst and overwhelming 97% agreed with the statement, ‘I feel the job I do is worthwhile’, in response to the statement, ‘I have a healthy work-life balance’, 56% either disagreed or strongly disagreed. 71% of respondents indicated that they regularly experienced feelings of guilt that they are neglecting their duties at home and 63% indicated that they ‘regularly felt stressed, depressed or overwhelmed when balancing work and family.’

Last week, at the #womened conference, Nancy Gedge ran a workshop entitled ‘Making the Most of Part-Time Working’. There were some really inspiring stories of supportive and enlightened employers, job-shares at Headteacher level, and some myth-busting around the demon-job of timetabling (‘I did it in the middle of the night whilst breastfeeding… and no, I’m NOT superwoman!’), there was an underlying not of frustration and something approaching despair.

Part-timers, we acknowledged, were frequently perceived as less committed than our full-time colleagues. We’ve all heard (and possibly used) the phrase, ‘you part-timer’ to insinuate that our colleagues are a little feckless, a little less overwhelmed by work than the rest of us. It was generally perceived to be fine to be part-time at mainscale teacher level, but the further up the career ladder you climbed, the less likely you were to be ‘allowed’ to be part-time.

So, why part-time?

There was a near-assumption that all of us around the table at this #womened seminar were parents. This appears to be the most widespread and most ‘acceptable’ reason for going part-time. Before and since the conference, I have observed that teachers already established in a role had little or no problem going part-time when a  baby was due, but that finding a part-time role in a new post was nigh-on impossible.

Teacher approaching retirement are another group for whom going part-time is recognised as a valid move. But I have heard little to no discussion of other reasons for going part-time. Whilst we would acknowledge that we celebrate our teachers having lives and interests outside school, I remember we were all somewhat gobsmacked when a colleague went down to four days a week to pursue his musical interests. When we start to think of it, there are numerous reasons why a teacher (or indeed a middle- or senior-leader) might want to be part-time. Caring responsibilities, a passion or interest, academic studies… Yes this discussions seem to rarely take place and these options appear to be rarely explored.

Through a mixture of serendipity and mixed-fortunes, I have landed on my feet, with a part-time middle leadership role which allows me to develop new skills and embrace new challenges whilst at the same time pursuing my Doctorate, exploring possibilities around writing a book, and engaging in other exciting freelance opportunities. And – yes! – they’re  not babies anymore, but being able to take my children to school and pick them up and stand in a muddy field watching my youngest playing football has improved my well-being immeasurably. The only issue is that my post was always going to be temporary. In fact, I find myself hoping to return to SLT – I have the qualifications and skills to build on, and I loved the whole-school responsibility. But I really, really want to stay part-time. And even some of the most enlightened people I known have snorted, scoffed and laughed at this hope. Why is it so outrageous? To apply for a new SLT role and ask for a day to pursue my research – should it really be so out-of-the-question?

The case against part-time working

‘I had two children and NEVER went part-time,’ said a colleague and Deputy Head to me the other day. There was a note of triumph and something approaching defiance there. As teachers,  think we are sometimes guilty of being almost competitive about our working hours as an apparent reflection of our commitment. To have gone part-time – would that have meant to give in?

Of course, for many parents, the cut in salary which comes with going part-time is simply not justifiable. I have worked with numerous colleagues who were effectively – and amazingly willingly – actually paying for the privilege of coming to work.

‘You can never be a part-time Head of Year.’ The words of another deputy. The students need consistency. You need to be there when they are. In a pastoral role, perhaps there is an argument here. Shared classes are also, apparently, a nightmare, not just for timetablers but for the students. And yet, at A Level, we actively promote multiple teachers with their multiple skills. Yes, it requires greater organisation, tighter communication and a bit more hard work to establish rules and boundaries, but is it that much of a disaster? After all, I’ve found that students build the strongest relationships with students who see them as ‘whole’ human beings with lives and families and interests.

The case in favour of part-time teachers

We are undergoing a serious crisis in teacher retention and recruitment. Isn’t this a bit of a no-brainer? How many potential teachers/leaders are we losing through lack of part-time opportunities. Is there, as @EquitableEd points out, a brain-drain happening?

Part-time workers have the capacity to have richer lives which, I would argue, in turn as the potential to make them more complex, interesting role models in the classroom.

Happier teachers are better teachers!

And, get this one… we’re CHEAPER for schools!

So, here it is. I’m a fully qualified and competent Assistant Headteacher, and I’d like a job in SLT. But I’d like to work part-time, so I can pursue my academic studies, work on a book, continue with my freelance opportunities and – yes! – take my children to school and football and occasionally cook an edible meal from scratch. (Should I, however, want to be part-time so I could attend Pilates, have a pedicure, and train for a 10k, this would be nobody’s business but my own.)

Am I really chasing flying pigs in stubbornly pursuing this dream? Are there other professions with models that we can learn from here?

Let the debate begin.


6 thoughts on “Making the case for part-time working at ALL levels

  1. There’s no real reason why any teacher at any level shouldn’t go part time – (although, technically, I think 4 days would not be considered part time!) but it is not an easy option for many reasons.
    I dropped to 4 days for the last year of my career because I wanted to access some of my pension in order to buy a little place in Spain. This option – the dropping to 4 days or fewer is available to teachers on the edge of retirement and does not have a massive financial implication because you receive pay and pension,

    I’m a secondary teacher so my remarks apply to that sector. Intuitively, I sense part time may be easier to facilitate in the primary sector but I’m not qualified to comment more than that.

    I’ve seen lots of part time arrangements and there are lots of things to be considered – in no particular order:
    timetabling is undoubtedly difficult and will almost certainly result in split classes and/or being confined to one Key Stage. You are right that at A level teaching is generally split between two teachers – that’s my experience particularly in English, but that doesn’t always transfer well to other Key Stages. I’m not entirely sure why that is but to be honest a lot depends on who you are sharing with. I’ve shared classes with colleagues in the past and it has worked well because we worked in similar ways, usually worked together anyway and therefore knew how to play everything. But there are many pitfalls. I’ve seen timetables created that start from what the part timer wanted which prioritised their wants/needs over those of people working full time who then found themselves sharing groups and/or with odd lesson distributions quite often against their wishes. Some colleagues have little compunction in saying “I’d love to do X and Y because I feel really confident with them…is that alright with you?” and that can mean that they have cherry picked the best, the areas they feel strongest or the ones that are easiest to do leaving you with the tough stuff. Not all colleagues are robust or organised! Their absence or falling behind in agreed schedules can bring immense difficulty for their “other half”. These matters can be difficult to address – what if the colleague is just back off mat leave, for example? And in these days of accountability – how does sharing work? Room for a lot of washing of hands for starters!

    Unless you are very strong minded, part time can become part time pay with full time work! It’s tempting to use the time you’re not being paid to do marking/planning…..

    In theory, there’s no reason why post holders couldn’t be part time but a lot would depend on context, the way the week is split and the responsibilities held. Our Head dropped to three days last year and it made for difficulties – the “two day head” didn’t feel able to do anything other than maintain the status quo and the Head felt difficult matters were left for his days. How would it work for – say – a Head of English who dropped to 3 days? Do they do all the HOD stuff or does someone become HOD for two days? How would responsibility be split? Lots of communicating and planning would be required.

    Where pastoral staff are concerned, someone would have to fill in the additional days. How would that work? A complementary post holder? A member of SLT? By definition, pastoral roles require constancy, presence and availability – hard to work part time on this basis. I have long been of the view that pastoral roles such as Head of Year should be fulfilled by non-teachers. I’ve seen this work brilliantly.

    I’ve long believed that school should be a four days a week gig. For teachers, day 5 would be time for planning and marking which could be organised in a variety of ways on and off site. For pupils it could be time for proper homework, self study, extended projects…. That would leave everyone then with a genuine weekend and no horrible Sundays of planning, marking and fretting.

  2. Speaking from a HT perspective on having a part time SLT member I have a couple of reflections but in a nutshell I see no challenges that would be insurmountable for being a part time member of SLT. However the biggest challenges that would need working through are:
    1. How do I ensure that I manage that fine line of expectation in order to avoid anyone working part time just doing a full time job on less days? It could just lead to an awful work life balance.
    2. Thinking of part time SLT posts as a job share is part of the wider problem. They can work but are complicated to get right. There are plenty of aspects of the job that could mean there is still separation of responsibility.
    3. The four day a week idea is interesting but I’d prefer to leave us with five days but have funding that allows for more PPA time in order to turn round marking quicker and plan the most appropriate lessons. Personal preference I guess.
    4. The biggest challenge would be timetabling classes so to not diminish the learning experience for the young people not SLT responsibilities.

    When I sit down to think of my current SLT if any of them said it was part time or they’d have to leave I’d work out a way for them to stay some how; it should be no different for creating a new post.


  3. Disagree here. It is not ok for part timers who can afford not to work full time to then go and spend their days off working for free. This situation is creating a vicious circle in schools because the full timers then have to work every hour God sends to match the productivity ratios set by all the part timers. Additionally, teaching is fast going the way the arts have gone, with only the wealthy and well connected being able to become artists or actors because for every part timer willing to work full time for peanuts, there’s a good quality full timer who’s just been priced out of the workplace because of a race to the bottom in terms of wages.

  4. In a debate about workload recently I suggested how great it would be if ALL teachers worked four days a week, (but students attended for five). Would teachers be prepared to take a pay cut for an increase in time? And be disciplined enough NOT to end up working all week anyway? Could we cope with the increase in the number of teachers we’d need, because teaching would become a more appealing profession? Could we get our communication systems right so that schools still operated efficiently and effectively?

    I’ve known part-time working arrangements and job shares at all levels, Emma. I think it can work well as long as we get relationships and communication right so the students don’t suffer (especially in the job share situation).

    Thanks for opening up the debate!

  5. I feel strongly about part time for a number of reasons. Firstly I think the more staff we have in school the better the flexibility in what we can offer to students. I have seen schools where part time staff are in greater number to full time. When I needed to take two weeks off for a training placement (and this also happened to cover a jury service) some of the part time staff stepped in to do additional days which saved us from unknown agency staff. We retained parents and near retirees and we were able to retain their skills and knowledge. They mentored other staff so we could step into their shoes in time and two often return post retirement for short term cover.

    I feel a little confused about my next concern: work life balance. I feel a little sad that I’ve had to go part time in order to keep teaching from taking over my complete life but it is what it is. I’ve had huge changes this years in my personal life and a sharp reminder of what is important to me. Therefore I’ve made the decision to go part time so I can retain my friends and family and activities that I love (and need, such as running) in my life. Happier teachers are healthier teachers and healthier teachers and better teachers…

    We have an imbalance in gender in senior roles and with the stats showing it is predominately women who work part time this could be a way to enable more women to become senior leaders. We are losing wonderful talent due to our lack of flexibility. In SLT particularly there are simple ways of splitting duties into two roles, which I would prefer over a job share.

    With the mental health of teachers a concern, as well as the shortage of teachers we continue to experience, shouldn’t we be moving towards retaining as many decent staff as we can? And if that means tweaking the timetable a bit, then so be it!

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