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Flexible Teaching is Inspired, But Don't Reinvent the Wheel!

11/03/2016 16:17 GMT | Updated 11/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Last weekend, the Education Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Nicky Morgan, proposed an inspired idea to help tackle the serious teacher shortage that the UK is currently facing. Suitably launched to coincide with International Women's Day, Mrs Morgan announced a drive to encourage women to return to teaching after having children, recognising that "too many parents feel they lack the support to juggle the demands of having a family and their career".

The new initiative is, according to Mrs Morgan, intended to offer flexible working opportunities for female teachers returning to the profession to "ensure there are no limits to what women can achieve so we make the most of the exceptional talent we have in the teaching profession".

This is particularly important in teaching, which is a heavily feminised workforce. According to the latest Department for Education (DfE) statistics, of the 512,000 full-time teachers working in the UK, 70 per cent are female. In the primary sector, this rises to 83 per cent, with 60 per cent of teachers in secondary schools being female.

Contrast this with the number of females in leadership posts and it is evident that something is seriously awry - just 37 per cent of secondary head teachers are female, compared to 63 percent who are male.

Typically the number of teachers leaving the profession remains at a long-term average of about 10 per cent per year. This has been increasing slightly over the past few years - the current figure is 10.4 per cent, which amounts to over 50,000 teachers leaving each year. Of these, about 27 per cent retire. An in-depth academic study on teachers leaving the profession suggests that about nine per cent of these resign for maternity or family care. That is around 5,000 teachers each and every year. There are now believed to be almost as many trained teachers below retirement age who aren't currently working as teachers as there are teachers working in the classroom.

You don't have to look far to see why they struggle to return. Teachers forums online and popular blogs are filled full of comments from teachers who say they simply can't cope with a full-time teaching job alongside family commitments. One, Sushe, says: "I started my day as usual at 4.30am to work to try & fit it in (I tend to stop work around midnight exhausted having spent no time with my young children which appears to be the norm). My colleagues (non parents), joke that my children don't know who I am. I laugh but, as my youngest who used to be clingy to me can now only be comforted by his father, this is a painful truth."

She concludes that, "I will find something else, because I have to. My family are too important."

So Nicky Morgan's proposal to offer guidance to schools on how to offer flexible working opportunities to encourage them to think about how teaching roles can be designed for part-time, job sharing or flexible working are likely to be warmly welcomed by those wanting to reenter the profession they love but currently unable to do so due to time pressures. If this can become common practice, it could become an important step towards resolving the teacher shortage, and - indeed - helping teachers like Sushe stay in a career they love while maintaining a semblance of a family life.

It is important, though, to offer a word of caution. Mrs Morgan has also announced that this initiative "will include the launch of a new dedicated website to make it easier for women to search for teaching roles which offer part-time or flexible hours - and to match them with schools that have suitable positions available, offering a win-win for both sides".

This sounds all well and good, however it raises the spectre of a disastrous government attempt to launch a teaching jobs platform back in 2009, under the final days of the New Labour administration. Dubbed the Schools Recruitment Service, it was launched with great fanfare, with government claiming that schools could 'save up to £30m by using a new recruitment website to hire teachers and support staff'.

The then-schools minister claimed, "Too often recruiting staff takes up far too much time and is a costly, long-winded process. This harnesses innovative online technology to make it a painless, speedy and more cost-efficient exercise."

It all sounded whizzy and amazing in theory, and a five-year contract was awarded. Upon launch, the Guardianlavished it with the "Government Computing Award 2010 for Shared Services". But fast forward just two years and it was already clear the project was an expensive White Elephant. "Little-used," as Education Investorpolitely put it at the time, its demise was announced in January 2012 with the final nail being put in its coffin in July that year.

This was a classic example of a government "build it and they will come" approach, with a centralised platform sounding like a panacea to many problems. In theory. But in practice, it was shunned by the teachers who were expected to flock to it. They built it, but no-one came. Primarily because there were preferable, efficient alternatives already readily available.

Although well-meaning, the civil service in particular has a recurring tendency towards centralisation - which contrasts, certainly, with the Conservative government's ethos of working in partnership with the private sector to develop market-driven solutions. Another education example is the recently published Commission on Assessment Without Levels report recommending the establishment of a "national item bank of assessment questions".

It's important that this tendency towards centralisation is resisted. In the education recruitment space, there is a healthy, substantial ecosystem of platforms where teachers can already go to look for jobs. These range from long-established providers, like TES Global, Eteach and the Guardian to emerging players such as Schools Week, Talented Teacher Jobs and TeachVac.

There is no need, therefore, for government to reinvent the wheel when there are a multitude of potential partners in the sector to work with. Furthermore, the School Recruitment Service failed at a time when there was a huge surge of interest in joining the teaching profession, seen to be a "safe haven" during the recession. Any attempt at a variant of this now, at a time when applicants are scarce, is likely to fall even flatter on its face. The problem isn't that aspiring teachers don't know where to look for a job - it is rather that there are very few aspiring teachers out there at the moment. It's the root causes of this that the government needs to address.

The government can play a huge role in working with schools, teachers and the education recruitment industry to offer guidance as to how flexible routes back into teaching could be offered. Certainly greater investment into CPD to allow those who have been out of the profession for some time get up to speed with curriculum changes, new classroom technologies and the latest teaching practices would be a must. But the last thing the sector needs is another expensive government-sponsored jobs board: the first time may have been tragedy, but the second time really would be farce.