Please Miss, which days do you come in to class?

Job sharing could help ease the chronic shortages of teachers by luring back some of the thousands who have dropped out of full-time teaching because of the pressures. But is it good for the education of the children, particularly the youngest?
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The Independent Online

The endless wracking of brains to find solutions to the desperate shortage of teachers has come up with some ingenious ideas. But one obvious way of encouraging teachers to stay in their classrooms and lure experienced staff back from the vast pool of inactive teachers has been ignored by the powers that be: flexible working in general, and job sharing in particular.

The endless wracking of brains to find solutions to the desperate shortage of teachers has come up with some ingenious ideas. But one obvious way of encouraging teachers to stay in their classrooms and lure experienced staff back from the vast pool of inactive teachers has been ignored by the powers that be: flexible working in general, and job sharing in particular.

That is about to change when the first job sharing head returns to work next week. Rebekah Marshall has won the right to share her post as head of a North Devon primary school at an employment tribunal, after governors and the local education authority originally rejected her request.

Until now, job sharing has been unheard of at such a senior level. But in a small number of primary and secondary schools it is already well established among classroom teachers. Exploiting their strong position in the employment market, they have voted with their feet - not always by leaving the profession altogether, but by working out their own solutions to stay within it. Recruitment agencies such as Select report a marked trend towards flexible working.

The benefits for the teachers themselves are obvious: less stress and a more balanced existence. Professor Cary Cooper, who is currently working on a national study of flexible working, is convinced of the advantages to individuals and the profession as a whole. "Job sharing allows teachers to feel that they're making contributions in both arenas - work and home, or another job - without feeling guilty in either, because someone else is picking up the other half," he says. "And having a foot in another camp allows them to put problems at work into context and handle work pressures a lot better."

Head teacher Susan Brown agrees. She recently took over West Acton Primary School in west London, where job shares have become the norm in the past five years. She was herself a pioneer job sharer when she combined work with an MA in the early 1980s. "Having been on the other side myself, I can appreciate the benefits it brought to me both as a teacher and as a person," she says. "There is inevitably more administration involved, but there are definite advantages to the school. Job sharers work more hours than if they stuck to their time pro rata and they enjoy their job more because they're working hours that fit in with their other commitments. That enjoyment and enthusiasm comes through."

That can only be good for pupils. But how do parents - particularly of young children - feel about job shares? While at secondary level it may be possible to manage a job share so that pupils still have one teacher for all their lessons in a particular subject, in primary schools it is bound to mean that children have two teachers.

Jackie Morrell's five-year-old daughter Lizzie has just started in a reception class shared by the two West Acton teachers featured opposite. "I had slight anxieties that Lizzie might not settle, or find starting school more difficult," she remembers. "I was also worried about how it was going to work for my son, who had a job share in Year 2. He had some difficulties with learning and is easily upset. I thought it would unsettle him and he would find the change over between the different styles and different expectations of the two teachers difficult. But in both cases my reservations soon turned out to be totally unfounded."

But Ted Wragg, Professor of Education at Exeter University, is not convinced that job shares are right for the early years. "I think when children are starting school it can cause some difficulties because they need the stability of a regular face, to know the teacher's way of doing things, their rules and conventions," he says. "I think if possible it's best to have stability all day, each day. But I'd sooner have a teacher who was keen and motivated four days a week than someone who was browned off working five days. The real test is how effective they are in the classroom."

That depends ultimately on good communication between the two job sharers. When it breaks down, the children's education is likely to suffer, as one West Acton mother discovered. "There was only one year that the job share worked badly and that was because the two teachers didn't communicate," she says. "Because I job share myself, I could only go into school on Thursday or Friday. When I asked about the beginning of the week, the teacher would say 'I don't know, because that's not my half of the week'. And at parents' evenings, only one teacher would be there, so I felt that I wasn't getting the full picture. In the end I complained to the head."

The progress of the North Devon job-sharing head will be followed with considerable interest by anxious employers and ambitious classroom teachers alike. Russell Clarke, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, has understandable reservations. "Administrative tasks could be subdivided," he agrees. "But can leadership, which is the prime characteristic of a head? That argument applies proportionally to senior posts below headships." Even so, teachers who were resigned to the notion that part-time working would damage their promotion prosp-ects are now wondering why.

West Acton's head, Susan Brown, never considered that job sharing would damage her career prospects, and it didn't. But Jonny Zucker, who combines job sharing a Year 2 class with teaching special needs, work as a freelance writer, and looking after his baby son, is unsure: "If I could job share as a deputy head it would make me more inclined to think about it, although I would worry about not being in school full-time. Like a lot of teachers in their twenties and thirties, I prefer to keep other irons in the fire."

* education@independent.co.uk

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