So-ing and Patchwork Part 1.

by Emma Turner @Emma_Turner75

I am a mother of three small children and I work flexibly, part time, in education. Now read that sentence back.

How many read the word, 'and' but heard or inferred 'so'? How many inferred that I work flexibly because of my children rather than the flexible working setup being seen as separate and unconnected and a proactive rather than a reactive choice? For too long and across too many aspects of our education sector (and our lives) our flexible workers’ choices are attributed a 'so' rather than an 'and. It is almost as if flexible working needs to be excused or explained by being prefaced by a reason for its very existence and accompanied by an unrequested but seemingly necessary apology for not working full time or in a traditional working pattern.

This awareness of “so”-ing, and developing an active future avoidance of it, is one of the next steps we need to make on our journey to threading and securely knotting flexible working into the fabric of working practices. I have worked flexibly in education for 14 of my 24 years in education now. Sometimes before my children, sometimes after my children, sometimes full time, sometimes not, sometimes in class teacher roles, sometimes in headship or Trust leadership roles.

What I have done in every role though, is to try and push the boundaries of the flexible working narrative, to try and create wriggle room and stretch within flex so that more space is made for much wider conversations and models of flexible working than currently exist.

For some schools, organisations or trusts, they may see flexible working as a negative, an annoyance which has to be tolerated up to a certain level but believe that there comes a tipping point where no more flex can be absorbed. So in those instances you have a model where flexible working is seen as being like chlorine in a swimming pool, necessary and able to be tolerated up to a certain percentage but becoming toxic in larger quantities. And this is so wrong. Flexible working is anything but toxic however there is a pervasive, enduring narrative which seems to say that the default of full time is still somehow best, somehow preferable, somehow more effective. This is in part why we have part time and flexible working requests or cases where flexible working has to be accompanied by a 'why, when in fact the default should be, 'why not? Having to make a business case for why you don’t want to default to full time can feel a bruising and invasive process. Flexible workers in many cases, already have a hell of a lot on. They are often the ones juggling childcare, caring for elderly relatives, may be facing their own physical or mental health challenges or juggling studying with work. Very few people ask for flexible working because they are lazy or are trying to shirk responsibility or development. Far from it.

People who want to work flexibly are realistic and insightful enough to recognise that full time traditional models will not currently serve them or enable them to continue to contribute, grow and develop alongside other commitments, but they know that they want to keep skin in the game. These are colleagues who want to remain in work.

They are the colleagues who aren’t trying to throw in the towel but are often actively juggling multiple commitments in order to remain part of the workforce and to continue to develop as professionals. These are savvy, agile, highly aware and often experienced colleagues who are frequently doing the juggle-struggle in a full time role who are then all too often made too fearful to ask for flexible working as they are convinced it will be refused. For every positive story about flexible working there remain half a dozen horror stories of over burdening, unrealistic expectations, point blank refusals, eroded pay and opportunities, and gradually pushed out of a role. This is not what flexible working should be. For too long the people to whom potential flexible workers must submit their requests are not in the demographics who would necessarily require flexible working or need to reap the personal balance benefits it brings. This is why it is so important to challenge flex at all levels across our infrastructure.  In Part 2, I discuss how we can create a more flexible approach.

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