Andrea Jennings is the Director of Support Services at Frederick Bremer School in East London, the school that featured in the CH4 documentary, Educating the East End.  She has two children, aged 10 and 5 and, in response to Hayley Dunn’s overview of family-friendly approaches from SLT, tells us about how flexible hours can work for all roles throughout school.

Many people think that being a parent and a teacher is easy – much easier than having a ‘normal’ job – just think of all those holidays!  But the truth is that as a teacher or a member of support staff it’s normal to have to be in work by 8:00am if not earlier.   Then there are the parent evenings, open evenings, times you need to stay and wait for a parent to come to a meeting after school or times that you need to try and come in early as it’s the only time a parent can come to talk to you about an issue.

Some – but not all – nurseries and breakfast clubs understand the time restraints on working parents and open at 7:00am, but for a teacher with a commute and a morning gate duty, even this is not early enough to manage a drop off and getting into work on time, so what do you do?

If your child suddenly becomes unwell at school, and you are in the middle of a year 11 Maths lesson, what do you prioritise?  Now factor in an SLT role with governors’ meetings, weekend conferences, weekly SLT meetings, staff briefings, assemblies…  And you can only take holiday when your children are also on holiday.  With all these commitments, how can you balance a personal and professional life, let along get any time to yourself?!

There are issues for working parents across all industries but sometimes it can feel like schools are a bit behind the times in looking at ways we can support staff who have children and family commitments.  It’s easy to just think “well we can’t accommodate working from home or flexible/part time hours, we need staff to be on site at all times just in case”.  For example, I recently contacted a school about a vacancy that I was interested in applying for.  The hours were 8:00am to 5:00pm and due to the location, this just simply wouldn’t have worked for me because of my childcare commitments.  I asked them if they would consider flexible working and was quite shocked by their response: “I’m sorry,no” – no explanation or even a salutation in the email!

I am a firm believer that we need to start looking at the issue of teachers’ contracted hours in a different way.

Nine years ago I was the first person in the school to apply for flexible working and we now have a number of staff on flexible working agreements.   Over the years my flexible working hours have changed, but currently I finish at 2:30pm on a Friday, which allows me to pick both my children up from school and at least get to know their teachers and other parents.

Our school offers a wide range of options for staff with young families: if staff members come to us to say they are having issues with childcare we will always try to support flexible working requests.  A flexible working request could be coming in later every day or a couple of days a week.  It might be that one day a week a member of staff works from home or maybe they reduce their days and do compressed hours across four instead of five days.  If it’s doable and the departments that staff members work in can accommodate it with little impact then we will always try to work something out.

It’s important to value staff: they spend a lot of time at work and having additional pressures of children at home can really impact on wellbeing and stress.  We need to change our thinking about this and try and make it work.  Obviously it is easier to accommodate support staff; they are not tied to classroom teaching and timetables so we can look at working from home days a bit more.  However we always try to make it work for our teaching staff when we can.

In addition to flexible working, if staff members have a child who is unwell then they are able to work from home and are trusted to do so.  We offer paid days for dependent care, a good package for maternity/paternity/parental leave/adoption leave, KIT days, access to support services such as counselling and occupational healthcare, we offer a childcare voucher scheme and have a Wellbeing policy that we are working to embed this year.  We also allow staff to bring their children into school with them if they have INSET days/teachers strikes, as long as they ask first!

The world itself has changed dramatically over the last few years, with new technology meaning we don’t need to necessarily all be in the same building at the same time using work computers to get our work done.  I can be coming back from a meeting or conference on a train and working through emails on my smart phone – meetings don’t have to be face to face – Skype and conference calls can be used as well.

There is a brilliant campaign at the moment called Flex Appeal, started by the fabulous Anna Whitehouse (otherwise known as Mother Pukka).    She’s a mum who had a full time job that just didn’t work around having a young child.  There are so many parents out there who have to give up on a career or take a large career break to make things work and this needs to change.   Find out more about this here.

As I have said it is harder in schools to be as flexible as some private sector companies but senior leaders need to bear in mind that staff are more productive and more likely to stay in a job  if they have a better work life balance and feel they can be honest about worries at home and that the school is going to be supportive of these.

For free coaching around flexible and part time working requests, or to find a jobsharer partner in your region, register with Flexible Teaching, who provide no catch services for teachers and consulting for schools.