Poor Practice and Inflexible Attitudes Fuel the Teacher Supply Crisis

06/06/2016 17:25 | Updated 06 June 2016

Despite the deepening teacher recruitment and retention crisis, fuelled by year on year cuts to pay, excessive workload and punitive accountability which have made teaching unattractive and uncompetitive, Government and employers have still not woken up to the fact that to attract those who still wish to teach and to retain those already teaching there is a need to make valuing the teaching workforce their key priority.

It's a simple fact that without good teachers, recognised and rewarded as highly skilled professionals and with working conditions to enable them to focus on teaching and learning, children and young people will not receive their entitlement to high quality education provision.

Yet that simple fact seems to be alien to too many of those employing and managing the teaching workforce.

One of the most prevalent examples of poor practice, driving good teachers out of the profession and fuelling the teacher supply crisis is the resistance of too many schools to flexible working, specifically part-time working and job share.

3,000 cases of teachers requesting flexible working have been analysed by the NASUWT. The data reveals that nearly a third of these requests were turned down. For teachers in leadership positions or with additional responsibilities, nearly all requests were denied.

Some of those who requested flexible working were told that it would mean giving up any promoted post they held. Some were advised that working part-time showed a lack of dedication and commitment to the school and the pupils. Others were told it would be too costly or that it would have a detrimental effect on their performance and standards of education.

Other reasons for rejection included 'all the job shares having already been allocated', implying some sort of artificial quota system,' "it's not convenient', and 'having two teachers will confuse the children'.

One teacher said: "We got a new headteacher about 18 months ago and he had a rule that he only wanted full-time workers in the school, so flexible working requests have been turned down and people are now prevented from working flexibly or part-time."

Even in the minority of cases where flexibility was granted, teachers reported still being expected to undertake work-related activities on days they were not supposed to be working, invariably without payment.

Official figures show that nearly three quarters of teachers are women, rising to around 85% in primary schools. We know that the majority of workers who wish to work part-time or flexibly are women, although the number of men seeking similar work patterns is growing.

Currently just one in four female teachers work part-time, compared to nearly half of women in the general workforce nationally. This represents a serious barrier to equality for women, and is one of the reasons why the NASUWT launched the Gender Equality Challenge two years ago, highlighting the need for specific actions to close the widening gender pay gap in the teaching profession, to ensure rights of pregnant women at work, and to demonstrate that flexible working is entirely compatible with the job of being a teacher.

Research undertaken for the NASUWT has revealed evidence that the lack of opportunity to work flexibly is driving teachers out of the profession to pursue opportunities elsewhere where there simply is greater acceptance of the importance of work/life balance and family-friendly working.

The lack of flexible working opportunities is also a barrier to their progression to the top positions in schools. Women are under-represented in school leadership, particularly within secondary schools, where only just over a third of headteachers are women. Indeed, we have heard from women who have told us that they are expected to choose between having a family or advancing their careers.

There are many who would argue that the goal of England's education policy since 2010 has been to return to a world redolent of the 1950s - of real knowledge, standards, and discipline. Of course, we should not forget that this was an era before the advent of a framework of equalities legislation and when the legacy of the 'marriage bar' continued to be felt, denying women the right to be seen to practise in their chosen profession if they got married and risked becoming pregnant. How times have changed! Surely, women no longer face the risk of losing their jobs if they are pregnant or raising a family? Well clearly the evidence shows that they do.

That this is a growing problem has been acknowledged by the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan (also Minister for Women and Equalities), who earlier this year set out plans to encourage more flexible working among teachers. Schools are to be offered guidance by the DfE on how they can offer flexible working opportunities and a new website is to be developed advertising part-time, flexible and job-share teaching vacancies.

Whilst this recognition of this particular problem is welcome, the Secretary of State needs also to reflect on the fact that it is the obsessive drive of her Government to give excessive discretions and flexibilities to schools over teachers' terms and conditions, its failure to monitor and challenge poor practice and the climate it has created that equality and workers' rights are unimportant, which has enabled these poor management practices to flourish.

Simply urging schools now to 'do the right thing' will not drive the necessary urgent cultural change and action which is required on this and on the myriad of other poor working practices. Much more is needed, including a change of policy direction.

Government and employers who continue to fail to act and to demonstrate professional respect for teachers need to recognise that a teacher supply crisis shifts the balance of power to the employees, who, when they are in demand, will be far more selective about where and for whom they work and become far more confident to challenge poor management practices.

Those who continue with outdated attitudes and prejudices will lose talented teachers to those enlightened employers who decide to re-imagine the working lives of teachers and show them professional respect they should command, regardless of any crisis in teacher supply. However, an even greater risk is that these committed teachers will be lost to the teaching profession altogether.