Can COVID-19 break the rigid opposition to teachers working flexibly?

It feels strange to talk about a global pandemic having upsides, but as we approach the end of many restrictions in the UK, it seems apt to reflect on what lessons we might learn from the life-changing experience we’ve all been through.  As a Sheffield Business School academic with a passion for exploring professional lives, I spent last year researching teachers’ experiences of working remotely.

The research I did added to a growing sense that the full-time working norms of teaching are no longer appropriate and sustainable for some teachers. And what makes life difficult for teachers, or drives them away from the profession, is rarely a good thing for pupils.

I also had the chance to connect with a colleague in the Institute of Education who used to be a teacher. She left the profession because, when she began part-time working, she lost all of her leadership responsibilities and found this lack of voice untenable. My sister has also just left the teaching profession after 20 years, to set up her own business. I remember providing childcare for her a decade ago because she was unable to persuade her employer to let her work part-time and keep her promotion to head of department, and without the additional income she couldn’t have saved for a deposit to buy her first house.

The colleague referred to above, Dr Suzanne Brown, has since written a doctoral thesis recounting the experiences of part-time working women teachers. They were discouraged from applying for promotion because they perceived they would not be successful, due to a lack of precedence and also a perception that leadership roles necessitated full-time working, which they were reluctant to do. Part-time working requests usually align with having children, and as such very much represent a challenge to women’s progression in the workplace.

As a feminist scholar researching working lives and inequalities, it is concerning to me that this is still a wide-spread issue within any profession. Vague allusions to pupil welfare are often given as a reason for refusing teachers’ requests.

My own research, which consisted of 14 interviews with UK primary teachers, did not explore whether pupils might suffer because of teachers working part-time, or whether a leadership role absolutely requires the full-time presence of its incumbent (I would love to be steered to any evidence to underpin these claims). It did capture stories of extremely dedicated individuals for whom COVID-19 has given a new perspective on what it means to be a teacher. It revealed to the participants how absurd the habits and mantras are around what it means to be a good teacher, a committed employee, and a leader. One of my participants has now left teaching altogether, due to the manner in which she was treated when requesting some flexibility to allow her to care for her elderly parents during the first lockdown. Without exception, the others said they are now much more protective of their work-life balance, and some are considering requesting part-time work.

Some teachers seem to feel emboldened to stand up and ask their employers for flexibility in their working hours now, having had home-working thrust upon them, which allowed them to demonstrate great commitment to pupil welfare and learning, even from a distance.

Will their requests be met with the same rigid opposition as in the past or has it really taken a pandemic to make school leaders see sense?

By Dr Katy Marsh-Davies







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