Peanut Brittle or Marshmallow? (Growing into Flexible Working)

Erin Skelton portrait

Written by Erin Skelton

Erin is first and foremost an educator and her extensive experience includes a diverse range of roles, encompassing both pastoral and academic leadership positions, across both independent and state education settings. Prior to joining Bright Field, Erin’s most recent role was as Assistant Head and Head of Sixth Form in a top independent girls' school. In this role, she nurtured her students, instilled a sense of purpose and provided invaluable mentoring to prepare them for life as a woman in the 21st century and beyond.

It’s 8:39 on a Monday morning as I sit and type this. I’ve already had breakfast, fed the dog, emptied the dishwasher, folded and put away the laundry, and undertaken the mammoth task of ensuring that my son was prepared for the day and is sitting on the school bus. My first meeting isn’t until 10:00… Normally, with military precision I would be up, packed and gone by 7am on the dot to get myself to school for 7:45. Logged on, armed with the first of many caffeinated drinks, I would already have sent multiple emails and dealt with numerous issues before anyone else arrived; after all, I had spent the last seven years as Assistant Head in charge of a large Sixth Form in a top independent school. 

And yet, here I am, on a Monday morning, sitting in my home office. I am one of many senior leaders in education who have opted out of senior leadership. If you’re reading this, then I’m sure that you have read the constant stream of headlines and statistics about teachers at all levels wanting to redefine what their working lives look like. Well, I am one of those people.

Full disclosure, the decision to step out of a SLT position has been a challenging one. As an Assistant Head, on a good day, I felt like I was making a significant difference to the school and students; I felt a real sense of purpose, like I was an empathetic superhero. That is a feeling I still love and it’s one of my core values. But realistically, I knew that to achieve that I was working sixteen-hour days, I was at every school event, answering emails at 11:00pm before I closed my eyes, and the first thing I would do in the morning was to check my email with dread to see what had come into my inbox whilst I was sleeping. I was sacrificing my time, my family and ultimately my wellbeing, and I was measuring my sense of worth solely by my job. But what about the holidays, I hear you say. Most Heads of Sixth Form work most of school holidays; we field university and UCAS application issues, worries about mock and real examinations, we prepare for and support Y11 students around GCSEs and entry to our Sixth Forms and we work tirelessly around A level results, university admissions and UCAS clearing. Almost every issue that lands with us is a matter that could change the course of a young person’s life. It is not a job for the faint of heart.  

I spent so much of my time giving inspirational assemblies and talks about knowing your worth, being brave and following your dreams, that I had ultimately known for several years, that I needed to do that for myself, even if I knew that I would probably have to unravel many of my own self-beliefs to get there. I loved my role and I love my school. I was also fully aware that I could have tried to find a better balance, that I could have had healthier boundaries around my job, but the nature of my role meant that if I did that, it would be the students who lost out, because my role wasn’t about ticking boxes, it was about people and what made me a great Head of Sixth Form was that I was invested in ensuring every student was happy and as successful as possible. 

Cue discussion about being authentic and following my dreams… The reality was that I felt trapped; I had been a teacher for eighteen years, all of which had been in some type of leadership position. I had no idea what it was to not have leadership responsibilities and like so many of my colleagues, I thought the only thing that I could do was “teach”; we forget the vast skill sets that teachers have. I made lists, I sounded people out, I listened to podcasts, and I read. I tried to remember what my dreams actually were.

Eight months ago, armed with my thinking, I walked into my Head’s office after psyching myself up for three months to speak to her. That initial conversation with my Head set things in motion, and I returned to my school in September as a part-time main-scale teacher for the first time in eighteen years. Here’s what I’ve learned so far…

We are educationalists not simply teachers. We have a vast skill set and are not defined by the parameters of a job description. Teaching seeps out of our pores and when you work outside of one singular educational setting you get a real sense of how this is a superpower that can be applied in so many areas of life and work.

I didn’t step down, but I did step out. I think it’s important to think about the language that we use when we talk about changes in the ways people work. I have had such mixed responses to my decision. When a person wishes to work more flexibly, particularly when the decision has nothing to do with childcare needs or health, that decision is often questioned on the grounds of their ability to “cope”. We shouldn’t have to cope; there are no awards for giving so much of yourself into any role that you have nothing left. I am a highly successful, highly competent leader in education; I didn’t fail because I wanted to step out of the parameters that were defined for me, I wanted to draw my own.

Flexible working doesn’t come without its challenges. I work full-time across two roles: one teaching and one largely within educational settings both in the UK and globally, plus some additional passion projects. Balancing the demands of both roles requires a lot of organisation and commitment to both institutions equally. I would add that as teachers, we are very institutionalised; our days run to a formulaic schedule, and we become adept at putting ourselves last during the course of the school day. This is a real issue for everyone I have met who has moved to part-time teaching or moved out of the classroom altogether. Suddenly there isn’t a bell telling us when we can go to the toilet, a timetable dictating how we spend our days, or a salary that we receive irrespective of the additional hours we put in. Suddenly we have to navigate part-time working conditions, changes to the complexity of how our tax, pension and benefits are calculated and sometimes a lack of understanding from the full-time staff managing our HR and payroll.

Stepping out of a leadership role and remaining in my school has also personally been a real challenge for me. I now know that I could have undertaken my SLT role part-time as well as taking on my new role with relative ease. I am also slowly settling into being a classroom teacher where there are no expectations for me outside of that role. It is hard to have to say ‘no’ when students approach me for support, or you can see colleagues struggling with the burden of their workload or a problem they would have previously approached me to solve, particularly given the nature and size of my previous role. At present, there is still a lot that I am doing behind the scenes to support which I am not paid to do, but I do so because I care, and my decision has had a significant impact on the school.

If you can make peace with the frustrations, flexible working can give you space, time, and a balance to your perspective and the way you live your life. It’s very early days for me, but already I am excited about utilising my skills in new ways, taking the time to meet new people, read inspiring books and work more creatively on projects that have a wider impact. I am noticing little things, taking reflection time, being out of doors, being more present with my family, resuming old hobbies and taking up new ones.

I find myself growing to fill an expansive space and I welcome it.


My Journey as a Part-time Senior Leader

Harroop Sandhu portrait

Written by Harroop Sandhu

Harroop Sandhu is a senior school leader and professional coach, with 17 years of experience driving successful strategies and improving outcomes in various educational areas. Most recently she has led her school to successfully achieve the Send Inclusion Award, as well as spear-heading the organisation's DEI strategy. Her approach is to ensure that DEI work is integrated within the strategic aims of the organisation leveraging existing leadership tools.

Three years ago, the notion of transitioning to part-time work was nowhere on my horizon.

Life took an unexpected turn when one of my children fell ill, prompting a pause on my career to refocus on what matters the most. Amid navigating my child’s health needs, I found myself in survival mode. Emerging from this challenging period, I returned to part-time work after a two-month gap, encountering initial hurdles. However, as I gradually found my rhythm, an unforeseen preference for this new way of working emerged.

Within this experience, I’ve uncovered valuable insights.

Myth #1: Working Part-Time Means Less Effectiveness.

Contrary to common belief, working part-time doesn’t hinder efficiency; it can actually enhance it. The gift of more reflective time has nurtured my creativity and innovation.

Success in this arrangement hinges on disciplined time management; I remind myself I’m paid for three days of work, not squeezing five into three.

Liberating myself from guilt and the need to prove myself has been a pivotal realisation.

Tips

  • Effective time allocation is key.
  • Balancing work, family, commitments, and especially self-care all demand careful planning and allocation. Don’t put yourself last or squeeze it in.
  • Silencing self-criticism about perceived weaknesses is part of the journey toward self-compassion.

Myth #2: Part-Time Work Signals Lack of Ambition.

Embracing part-time work has deepened my commitment to personal growth.

While some argue full-time dedication accelerates progress, I’ve found fulfilment in having the mental space for development and time to pursue other interests, aligned with my sense of purpose. I have found that I have more time for coaching and other professional development, which in turn benefits my employer and as well as myself. 

This flexibility has also inspired others, resulting in increased requests for flexible arrangements—an indicator of impactful leadership.

Tips

  • Celebrate your achievements and acknowledge your aspirations.
  • When you silence doubts, your strength and dreams amplify.
  • Before constraining yourself, seek input from others to broaden your perspective.

Myth #3: Missing out on Connection and Opportunities.

Initially, the challenge of navigating communication arose from a fear of missing out due to absence. However, I’ve learned that communication quality outweighs quantity.

Utilising strategies like follow-up emails and regular check-ins helps maintain involvement.

Open conversations marked by transparency with superiors foster mutual understanding.

Addressing unique experiences benefits not only you but also those around you.

Tips

  • Express your needs openly with your line manager.
  • Ensure your scheduled time with your line manager remains intact and isn’t cancelled.
  • Propose suggestions and solutions, but don’t shoulder the burden alone.

Myth #4: Flexibility Equates to Unreliability.

Unreliability often arises from overcommitment or lack of planning. Overcoming guilt and the desire to overcompensate, by embracing strategic time management and open communication was enlightening. Prioritisation, clear communication, and collaborative solutions with my line manager helped navigate this. As well as, balancing tasks and seeking help as needed cultivating a win-win situation.

Tips

  • Consider what you might need to say no to when saying yes to additional tasks.
  • Involve your line manager in this process. It could involve acquiring more resources, creating space, or delegating tasks.
  • Don’t hesitate to seek compensation for work beyond your designated hours.
  • Effective leaders recognise their boundaries. Don’t be afraid to say no.

I believe that Flexible working is a solution for not only working parents, but for people that are looking to explore personal growth or navigate other areas of life outside of their work. This autonomy can lead to greater job satisfaction and happier employees who are likely to be more creative, innovative and productive. 


Languages in the Community

Mair Bull portrait

Written by Mair Bull

Former teacher and content writer for BBC Bitesize. Now works at Manchester Metropolitan University in the Curriculum and Rise teams.

Recently, we launched our first flexible learning Short Course, a trailblazing Office for Students pilot, part of the Government’s lifelong learning and upskilling agendas. We started with the unit ‘Languages in the Community’. We have a fantastic first group who really enjoyed learning about the course structure and being introduced to Urdu. Each week we will explore another of Greater Manchester’s most popular languages and learn more about the city and our community. In addition, the unit explores how we communicate (using both verbal and non-verbal forms) and create inclusive and welcoming spaces, no matter the level of spoken English.

This innovative pilot enables students to study flexibly and from 2025 to ‘stack’ their courses to build up to a full degree. We have started initially with Level 4 and students can ‘stack’ to achieve a Certificate of Higher Education (equivalent to first year of a degree). 

Initially, our Short Courses are aimed at those working or volunteering in education, health and social care. Most students in the pilot do not have degrees and so this new and exciting opportunity offers them a chance to gain a qualification whilst still working in roles such as classroom assistants, nursery staff, childminders and social care associates. However, the flexibility of the structure means the courses have also attracted those with degrees, such as teachers, using the courses as part of on-going CPD, especially as they recognise the importance of staying up to date following the significant impact of Covid-19 on young people and families. 

The Short Courses have been developed each step of the way with equality, diversity and inclusion at the core. Initially, we hired independent consultants from Diverse History UK, as part of our quality assurance review panel to scrutinise our inclusion curriculum planning.

The courses aim to role-model the best in flexible, inclusive and innovative practice. We want these courses to inspire and empower students, building that bridge between their previous experiences and these new level 4 opportunities. Our structure means that students come together in-person weekly for workshops, plus additional asynchronous online activities, which students work through independently at a time that suits them. There are no essays or exams, instead the assessments are authentic and can be applied directly to the students’ own setting. 

Key to the success of the Short Courses is the importance of creating a welcoming community, where students from all backgrounds and experiences feel they belong and can enjoy sharing the learning journey with others. 

The potential of the Short Courses model has really captured the attention of the sector and beyond, and we are exploring opportunities with our engineering employer partners creating a CAD (Computer Aided Design) and 3D printing course, with our award-winning Print City team. In addition, we are bringing on new units all the time, including Speech, Language and Communication; Mental Health and Wellbeing; plus Risk and Safeguarding.

To find out more visit: www.mmu.ac.uk/study/short-courses