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The school where half the teachers are part-time (and how they make it work)

Who says schools can only accommodate a few part-time teachers? Not Huntington School, where the flexible, people-first culture has led to a miniscule 7% staff turnover rate.

The statistics around teaching staff shortages are well known, but they bear repeating. Data from the NFER has indicated that targets for the required number of secondary school trainees have been missed for seven years in a row, and 33% of state school NQTs leave within five years. And while the Covid-19 crisis appears to have triggered a spike in graduate teacher training applications, it’s too early to say whether this will deliver sustainable growth.

Yet it is possible to buck these trends. There are a number of schools who are managing to hold on to their experienced staff at far higher rates than others. Step forward Huntington School, a community secondary in York, which has a miniscule staff turnover rate of 7%. Around half of teachers work part-time – including members of SLT – on contracts ranging from 0.2 to 0.8 FTE, and there are several job shares.

The importance of a supportive culture, championed from the top

So, what’s the secret? According to Headteacher John Tomsett, it’s all about the culture. John’s philosophy is that good schools don’t just pop up overnight; they grow over time out of a supportive culture, led by the leadership, that guides the school’s vision in the right direction.

In practice, at Huntington School, this means busting the myth that part-time teachers have a negative impact on students, and that the timetable can only accommodate a few part-time jobs. It means understanding that happy teachers stay, and that supporting the other aspects of their lives allows a school to get the best out of them. And it means taking a positive, proactive approach to flexible working, with a process built on the presumption that “We will make it work.”

The response from staff is hugely appreciative; a tweet from one teacher about the school’s approach to her request went viral in 2019.

Three success factors that underpin the Huntington model

Now clearly, this isn’t easy to achieve. It takes time, and it requires resource. But when the right elements are in place, the impact on people and the process is extraordinary. Here are three factors that make the Huntington model work so well.

  • Putting the right person in charge of the process

    As John has noted, “To make this work, you need a team dedicated to making it work.” In Huntington’s case, this team is headed up by Assistant Head Mike Bruce, who has responsibility for staffing and curriculum planning.

    The school has a blanket policy of accepting all requests and then working out the best way to implement them. Mike achieves this by working closely with the externally employed timetabler having taken the time to build constructive, mutually respectful relationships with his colleagues.

    As a result, the process is based on negotiation and compromise, rather than simply telling people what they’re being allocated. Mike and his team are always willing to go the extra mile to work around people’s preferences, as well as their immovable obstacles, and this is hugely appreciated by staff.
  • Building in time to get it right

    The logistics of timetabling are often cited as the biggest obstacle to flexible working in schools; in NFER’s 2018 Teacher Voice Omnibus Survey, 63% of senior leaders in secondary schools said that timetabling is a particular barrier. While the Huntington team don’t have a magic wand, they have made their process more effective by building in extra time.

    They begin the process in September for the following September, asking staff to make their flexible requests by November. Staffing requirements are confirmed in February, following confirmation of year 10 and 12 options, after which the team start building the timetable with these requests in mind.

    If this means splitting classes or arranging job shares, they are willing to spend the time to do so. John notes that there is no difference in performance outcomes for split classes at GCSE or A level, and parents have been encouraged to be supportive of job shares. The team also take into account issues such as rooming, which left untackled can be a real sticking point for part-time teachers.
  • Communicating at every stage

    John is passionate about the role of communication in making the process work – and he doesn’t mean by email. As he says: “Talking face-to-face to colleagues is the best way to find the compromise between what they need and what we can realistically offer.”

    This starts with setting out up front what is achievable, such as being clear that part-time staff aren’t guaranteed to get full days off. It also involves going back and forwards to get the best result. Subject leaders are asked to show their part-time colleagues what has been timetabled for them at every stage, and if they aren’t happy, send it back to be tweaked.

    This personal approach means staff feel able to be open about their needs, and understand when they have to compromise. As Mike Bruce notes, “As long as I can go back to them and say, “I’ve done my very best,” they are appreciative. They know they can ask me to look again at their timetable, and that’s important, too.”

The impact of all this is clear from the figures, with the school having retention rates that others can only dream of. And it’s equally clear from the staff response, like this one sent in May 2020:

 “I just wanted to say a huge thank you for sorting out my timetable requests for next year.  I don’t know how you have managed it! I really appreciate the efforts that must have gone into making this work and am certain this will make next year much more manageable as a result.”

With this level of appreciation, it’s no surprise that Huntington’s experienced staff are keen to stay, and that others are eager to join them; the school is once again fully staffed for 2020-21.

As John says, “I can’t make the job easier, but I can make doing the job easier.” If the Huntington model was replicated nationwide, would the teacher retention crisis become a thing of the past?

Published September 2020

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