There’s one group of people who are likely to provoke a lively response in a teacher led pub debate.No not HMIs. Not even Education Ministers.
For some on social media it has become the ultimate ad hominin. To read articles you’d think contractors and consultants were single handedly bringing down education.
Now. Declaring. I am a consultant (even here it feels like the start of a confessional or the start of a Spartacus moment). So please do read this with that bias in mind.
I am also a freelancer and contactor and have been on and off for my entire working life. Sometimes as my sole source of income and other times alongside employed roles. I have lived the best and worst of self employment.
And this is where words matter. Because this isn’t in truth a piece about consultancy per se. Consultancy is an act – a process – and can be carried out as much by someone on payroll as by someone on a contract; and indeed we see a lot of that with advisory and consultancy roles in MATs and LAs.
This is though a piece about the self-employed army that is currently propping up education. And this is where the pub debate usually deteriorates – “vultures sucking money out of education”; “working as a freelancer to max the cash”; “can’t teach so consult”.
And hey – for some people some of time that may be correct.
But maybe we need to reframe the debate. Because these people are also part of the gig economy – often with limited rights or support.
There are 4.8 million self employed across all industries. 2 million of these are freelancers – solo self employed people with higher level skills
In education, health and social work there are 538 000 solo self employed.
And at a conservative estimate there are 134,000 freelancers in education. And this is unlikely to count those who don’t consider themselves freelance – the teacher selling on TES Resources; the part time Head doing a day a week as an independent National Leader of Education.
And across the entire world of work this it is a growing issue. Whether we call it contingent working or portfolio careers or the gig economy, self-employment has doubled over the last 40 years to reach 16% of labour market; and this is accelerating. There are some suggestions it could reach 50% by end of next decade. Between 2008 and 2017 number of mothers working as freelancers doubled.
Why self employment?
Many are women (and some men) seeking self employment roles because of the lack of flexibility in education to balance work and family.
Lots are highly skilled staff whose roles as speech and language therapists, educational psychologists, SEN specialists, finance experts, community workers and fundraising leads were cut by local authorities and health teams; and whose only option to work was to become a freelancer (often to be contracted back by the body that cut them, only now without right to sick pay or holidays or consistency of role.)
Some moved into freelancing to work a portfolio career – managing different pieces of work and in doing so making links between areas of work in a way that traditional structures failed to do.
Others are social entrepreneurs – using their own funding and time to set up impact focused work that the confines of public services just doesn’t allow.
The numbers are growing and education doesn’t have a strategy to respond.
Well, In part it is part of a wider ethical debate about private gain in public sector. Freelancers and small businesses seem to take the brunt of the heat on this (while venture capitalists own education trade press, private business runs exams and text books and the big accountancy and consultancy firms are cleaning up). It a complicated debate and a little more honesty and a little less shouting would be good.
In part it is about the ethics of how we treat workers in the gig economy. My own lived experience is of some heinous management by people who had no idea how to handle contractors rather than staff. And I hear this regularly – particularly from female freelancers. Freelancers and contactors rarely have employment rights – bullying and harassment have limited right of recourse.
But it is also about understanding how much the system relies on contingent workforce. Cleaners to interim heads. Arts specialists to counsellors. Business managers to sports teachers.
With Department for Education funding increasingly being through short term contracts schools and educational bodies are reluctant to add to the payroll. Increasingly they use freelancers, small businesses and contractors to reduce their risk and overheads. Which is of course a legitimate strategy – like many of the uses of freelancers outlined in this piece well managed it can be a positive reason to use contractors.
Many of our lead specialists in SEND and other disciplines are now freelance. Increasingly schools are buying them in to meet the needs of our most vulnerable young people.
Some of the lead thinking and most used resources in education are coming from freelancers and small businesses. Freelancers providing news and small businesses providing behaviour training. Leading education books written on a freelance basis. Reports from small businesses set the tone for the current debate on exclusions. Innovations from Young Academy, Teach First and others have all come from small contractors risking their own time and funding to start up. Are all of these self employed led intercessions all perfect? No of course not – there is good and bad in self employment as there is in the employed world. But to pretend that they have no impact would be mealy mouthed.
In need of a strategy
The Department for Education has no freelance strategy. And we’ve heard time and again in itself manages them poorly (despite managing hundreds of them directly.)
And a lack of understanding permeates the sector.
Day rates are multiplied up to give a salary – showing no understanding of how a day rate needs to mitigate against the risks that the contracting body pushes to the freelancer. A recent article on how school should choose good SEND consultants questioned the ethics of a freelance individual charging £650 a day to support a school (maybe a reasonable question). But with no understanding of the irony that the author was paid the equivalent for doing the same work once their salary, holiday pay, sick pay benefits and security were taken into account.
Freelancers are increasingly responsible for their own training and professional development and are often excluded from training that would help them develop and fit into teams.
Organisations often support contractors to use personal service companies when actually they should be employing and taxing individuals as staff – walking a fine line on taxation issues such as IR35.
There are examples of individuals being denied employment or worker rights.
It’s a challenge not covered on the NPQH or on MAT CEO training and education charities – like perhaps the wider charity sector – also vary in their level of expertise.
So what can be done?
The system doesn’t know where its freelance specialists are – what their skills are, when they intend to stop working. We are likely facing a cliff edge in expertise but nobody has analysed the issue systematically.
We also have not considered the benefit of the gig economy in education. The potential for portfolio working to be offered as an option to staff who might still want to teach but also want to explore other areas. Of the case for building flex into a system in a more systematic way – balancing the interests of some people who want to work as freelancers with the ebb and flow of work in schools and education charities.
So maybe let’s look with a look at two things:
- A system wide review of where the freelancers and small businesses are in education; what they are doing; what their impact is and what their net value is – and from here we can build a strategy for best engagement
- Training for education bodies in managing freelancers and workers in the portfolio/gig economy – ensuring best outcomes for people, organisations and the public purse.
And perhaps – next time we are in the pub – we could ask the person behind the bar if they have an employment contract, and the rights afforded by it, before we start waxing lyrical on the evil of the self employed.
Anita Kerwin-Nye is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. She was a member of the gig economy before it had a name; a social entrepreneur before it was a thing and has lived the best and worst of self employment.