New legislation comes into effect in the U.K. tomorrow, which gives all workers the right to ask their employers for flexible working hours. According to employment relations minister Jo Swainson (reported in The Independent on Sunday) the changes will boost the economy because productivity will rise with a happier, more motivated workforce. It may also cut the incidence of ‘presenteeism’.
The report goes on to acknowledge that not all sectors are appropriate for the legislation, citing shop work as one. And another is, of course, schools. Where so much depends on the simple physical coincidence of bodies in a room, the scope for flexibility is clearly limited.
However, I wonder whether there is nonetheless more flexibility in the system than might at first appear. The most obvious example of this is the fact that teachers do have non-contact time – and as I have seen in – ahem! – certain other countries, the requirement for teachers to be on-site when they are not actually teaching is far from universal. I have seen the degree of flexibility that this creates in their lives at first hand. And that’s quite apart from the extra leave they grant based on age and length of service.
For the past few years, I have worked a somewhat flexible week, teaching either one or two twilight lessons to sixth formers in return for pro-rata lieu time, which this year has allowed me to finish at lunchtime one day a week. The flexibility this created was most welcome in terms of ability to conduct essential personal business comfortably within the working day, and even to get my school work finished so that there was more evening left by the time my wife got home. I will miss it next year, and I would certainly accept a longer overall school day in return for this flexibility, so long as the overall balance didn’t deteriorate.
One might speculate on what innovations academies could introduce here. All the assumptions are that local freedoms result in longer hours and worse conditions, but this needn’t necessarily be so. I know of one school that allows its staff to book one day’s discretionary leave per year, and this strikes me as a very enlightened thing. In many cases, this would resolve the conflicts where personal needs require such a day, in a way that would make it clearer and less dependent on the grace-and-favour of managers. I still cringe at the memory from many years ago, when I advised a colleague who wanted to spend Christmas with her husband’s family in California honestly to request leave of absence for the first (non-pupil) day in January, so that they could have a fortnight rather than a week there. She was turned down flat, and threatened with disciplinary process if she did not comply. So much for honesty.
In a week’s time, the Tour de France passes not a million miles from here, and I would have quite liked to be able to see it. Unfortunately, unlike many workers, I cannot take a day’s leave to do so. Last week, some kind-hearted colleagues offered to cover for me if I were to request the day off. I was touched by the gesture, but I really felt that I couldn’t ask for such a thing – and I’m pretty sure what the answer would have been.
Were such a leave scheme introduced, there would clearly have to be a structure – no more than one day a year, to be booked in advance etc. – but I do not believe it would be unworkable. At very most, in a large school, it would result in 120 days’ cover required, and I certainly would not mind picking up a little extra cover for the sake of the gained flexibility. And even if some cover had to be bought in, what price goodwill? In fact, I suspect it would be much less than that – I for one would not take such a day unless very specific conflicts arose – which so far has amounted to perhaps two or three times in a 27 year career. A slightly more flexible version again might reward staff for 99% attendance rather than 100%, in recognition that while full attendance is desirable, there are times when unwell people drag themselves in when they really shouldn’t.
It’s worth remembering that the new legislation only gives people the right to request flexibility – but the report suggests that something around 75% of requests under existing legislation (for parents and carers) have been agreed. This gives rise to speculation about what determines such outcomes; clearly there are some circumstances where it genuinely is not possible – but how much of this is also down purely to the outlook of employers with respect to their staff? One might need to address issues of exacerbating cases of frequent absenteeism, but another requirement could be that one’s other attendance had to be above a certain level in order to be eligible.
In my own school, while management is not downright oppressive, there seems to be a clear culture that you only cut the staff the minimum of slack that is their statutory right. While I only have direct experience of one school, gathered anecdote would suggest that ‘treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen’ is still the dominant mentality more widely. It seems that the ways in which staff are treated derive very much from the expectations of pupils – without much regard for their very different circumstances. There also seems to be a pervasive assumption in the profession (and perhaps managers in particular) that pupils cannot be benefitting unless teachers are struggling under heavy workloads and tough conditions, and this is a mentality that we could very well be rid of. In my view, punitive, exploitative, top-down management has had its day – as Daniel Pink says in Drive, a new settlement is needed in the workplace, and as usual, Britain is lagging behind the best practice in this respect.
Part of this is, once again, the zero-sum view of education as a material commodity in which every last drop of time and labour must be grabbed; in reality, learning is a much more indirect, cumulative process whereby a few hours lost – be it for school community events or teachers’ welfare – is not going to make a discernible difference, and it may in any case more than repay itself in the form of wider gains. My Thursday afternoons off have meant I could actually give more time to my work – and still have some evening time for myself, with the result that I was refreshed for the next morning.
While the room for manoeuvre in schools is more limited than in some other workplaces, if the principle is now accepted that more flexibility does good things for workplace morale and personal quality of life, why are ways not being explored of extending it to other groups, such as teachers? It would be nice if the much-vaunted emphasis on innovation and enlightened thinking played in teachers’ favour for once. Particularly from academies, I think there is scope for some enlightened management here.