Helen Woodward is the former Head of School Improvement at the DfE, Head of Early Years for Bolton MBC and Programme Leader at the University of Manchester for Leadership Pathways and NPQH. Helen now provides consultancy and coaching for school leaders in the UK and overseas and is currently a Consultant and Adviser for Zen Educate.

The Department of Education has said it is “committed to promoting flexible working among the teaching workforce within schools” in this review on Exploring flexible working practice in schools. It summarises existing evidence on flexible working practices and how they have been implemented in schools with useful examples. It’s a really interesting read but do have a read of this article before diving into it!

Teaching is a role where you clearly need to be there in person, but we can still look for opportunities to create flexible work practices which respond to the needs of the children, school, teams and individuals. As the need for teachers increases so has the need for flexibility within the whole school workforce. Below we’ve focused on flexible working for teaching assistants.

The benefits of offering flexible working

Here at Zen Educate TAs often tell us they have other roles and responsibilities alongside their TA role. These include childcare, caring for a family member, studying part-time, managing a health need or working in a different industry (we have a number of actors and entrepreneurs working with us). They all want to work and, for a variety of reasons, five days a week, seven hours a day doesn’t work.

Offering flexible working for TAs can bring great talent and diversity to your team alongside enabling those with other commitments to have fulfilling roles in the education workforce. Here are two examples we’ve heard of where schools have solved an issue by embracing flexible working for their TAs.

1. Covering the lunchtime rush

One school described the challenges of busy lunchtimes, the limited applications for lunch-time supervisor roles and the need to provide continuity - adults who knew the children and who understood and could work to the values and practices of the school. They explored the issue using Michael Fullan’s change model (Fullan 2001) and established a team across the school to work jointly on exploring new possibilities. The team included a TA, teacher, leader and governor. The team proposal was to trial some TA posts with hours from 10.30 am to 2.30 pm. These staff worked for four hours each day and always covered the lunchtime.

The solution worked well with other flexible arrangements emerging as the practice developed. Increased continuity during lunchtime reduced the number of incidents to be resolved after the break enabling children to be in class and ready to learn in the afternoon. The hours wouldn’t suit everyone but were perfect for some staff with childcare or carer responsibilities.

2. Supporting SEND TAs

TAs working in SEND often share with us their passion for enabling all children and young people to achieve their potential, their sense of reward and the joy they experience seeing the impact of their work. We also know the work is demanding, intense and challenging, especially for those working one to one. There is a real risk of losing talented, hard-working TAs due to stress and isolation. Job sharing or flexibility is a possible solution. SEND TAs’s who work two days and three days respectively with the same student bring some stability and continuity for the student whilst enabling the TAs a variety of roles and flexibility. This can help to minimise isolation, broaden staff experience and help retain dedicated and talented SEND TAs.

We know many TAs aspire to and do become great teachers. With part-time initial teacher training routes being explored further we can expect to see TAs seeking flexible work to support them during their studies in the future.

Introducing flexible working:

We know lots of schools embrace and trail-blaze new and innovative ways of working. If you’re new to this the below offers some thoughts to consider:

  1. See the requests for what they are, they are just requests, and, it’s ok to ask.
  2. Be prepared to consider all options and, like Emily Dickinson, ‘dwell in possibility’
  3. Consult with your staff (this could be a task group, a leadership project, a survey or focus groups) make safe spaces for people to share ideas, concerns and possibilities
  4. When you’ve made your decision about individual requests, explain what you’ve considered and why you’ve made your decision clearly, concisely and kindly
  5. Consider the needs of those most negatively affected by your decision (if any) and be clear what support can be offered
  6. In the words of Stephen Covey, ‘Begin with the end in mind’.

Flexibility and empathy can increase motivation, commitment and fulfilment at work, enabling talented and dedicated staff to remain in professions they love and making positive contributions to the school and community. Working collaboratively using a change model to develop flexible working solutions can build team leadership experience, understanding and commitment to new ways of working.

At Zen Educate we’d love to hear your stories, challenges and successes creating flexible working practices. Do get in touch to share them with us!