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Education: Retention? It’s flexi-time

09 February 2024

Interesting things are happening educationally in Yorkshire, discovers Dennis Richards

Harrogate Grammar School

A science class at Harrogate Grammar School

A science class at Harrogate Grammar School

TWO big educational initiatives are under way at the start of 2024. Both are being led — at least partly — by Yorkshire-based school leaders.

Sir Martyn Oliver has reached national prominence already, having been appointed as HM Chief Inspector of Schools at a moment when Ofsted itself is in crisis. His background is not dissimilar to that of Sir Michael Wilshaw, Amanda Spielman’s predecessor. The pendulum theory of education has kicked in.

Sir Michael was a former head teacher, and was regarded as a strict no-nonsense disciplinarian. Ms Spielman, his successor, had never been a teacher or school leader. Sir Martyn is very much in the Wilshaw mould: 28 years in teaching and school management, he was latterly chief executive of the Outwood Academy chain of schools, with more than 40 schools under his overall direction.

The name Outwood will mean little to most. A small, unremarkable conurbation on the outskirts of Wakefield, its only claim to fame is its school. The chain is known for its rigid disciplinary code, and its laudable commitment to taking over the management of failing schools in various areas of deprivation in the north of England.

Sir Martyn’s new task is a daunting one. The consequences of the Ofsted inspection at Caversham Primary School rocked not just the world of education, but the nation in general. The subsequent devastating report from the coroner on the death of the popular head teacher at Caversham, Ruth Perry (Comment, 24 March 2023), has left Sir Martyn with a mountain to climb. His first decision, on taking up the post, was to engage with Mrs Perry’s sister, Professor Julia Waters, herself in education at the University of Reading.

Bearing in mind that the Secretary of State, Gillian Keegan, went to primary school for a time in Knottingley, also near Wakefield, perhaps it is a matter of so far, so good.

Meanwhile, 30 miles up the road, another initiative is well under way. Harrogate Grammar School (its 2200-student intake is fully comprehensive) is an oversubscribed popular school with an “Outstanding” Ofsted report to its name. The recently appointed head teacher, Neil Renton, described to me his shock on discovering that, even in Harrogate, teacher recruitment was now a serious headache. “Not only that: hanging on to the recruits once we have them is equally, if not more, difficult.”

Harrogate Grammar SchoolHarrogate Grammar School

These factors prompted him to enlist the school into a new initiative funded by the DfE which has the acronym FWAMS: “Flexible Working Ambassador in MATs and Schools”.

He first realised the problem in a way that the majority of heads would identify with. On duty at the school gate, as usual, seeing his students safely off the site, he noticed a couple of his teaching staff hurrying away at the same time as the students. His immediate reaction was irritation. What about their marking? Lesson preparation? Meetings, perhaps?

On reflection, and becoming aware of the dire figures for teacher-retention, he concluded that radical action was necessary.

DfE data show that a staggering 39,930 teachers left teaching for reasons other than retirement in 2023. That equates to 8.8 per cent of the teaching workforce: the highest percentage since records began.

Mr Renton describes his own cultural mindset as a hindrance, imbuing in him a reluctance to face up to the stark reality of the situation. He quotes, with approval, a French sociologist, Pierre “cultural capital” Bourdieu. “Head teachers may well be, unknowingly, the sustain pedal of beliefs and ideas, usefully conceived to solve a unique set of problems from the past. But fresh problems emerge.” Retention in 2024 is clearly one of them. In other words, positively embracing flexible working is no longer a matter of choice.

Harrogate Grammar SchoolThe head teacher of Harrogate Grammar School, Neil Renton

So, what has emerged so far? More part-time teachers, who now constitute 43 per cent of the workforce at Harrogate Grammar School. As a consequence, Mr Renton is very proud of the fact that all lessons can, therefore, be delivered by subject-specialist teachers. There is no “Polyfilla”-type timetabling for under-used, full-time staff.

There is a maximum of two part-time teachers per group — teachers who “know the curriculum inside out and are more than capable of ensuring better delivery”, he says. He also talks of “end-of-career” flexible working, when teachers who are close to retirement seize the opportunity to ease back on their working hours and wind down towards retirement.

Early signs are promising. The staff have warmly welcomed the senior leadership’s willingness to put staff well-being and work-life balance high on their agenda.

But what about the part-time teacher’s familiar choice to be timetabled in a way that avoids Monday and/or Friday? His answer is surprisingly frank: teachers in senior positions — in other words, the best-paid — can expect full teaching days on both Mondays and Fridays.

Harrogate Grammar School is the main hub school of the Red Kite Alliance, another Yorkshire academy chain. Research at the Trust has demonstrated that there are far more women than men on the staff, and many of them in the lower quartile of pay; surely, at the very least, they deserve the option of flexible working.

Another scholar whom Mr Renton quotes, with approval, is Andreas Schleicher, of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in Paris. “Your education today is your economy tomorrow.” The status of teaching and its attraction as a career have slipped alarmingly. For the moment, at least, flexible working looks as if it is here to stay.

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