InTuition taster: Managing a portfolio career

Some two million people in the UK are freelancers, many of them working on a portfolio of different contracts. Gail Lydon offers an insight into what this means in the further education and training sector.

I am often asked about working freelance/being a portfolio worker and how to go about it. The questions can come at a conference where I’m sharing information or when I’m running professional development sessions.

When I reflect I realise I often give a list of things to watch out for, disadvantages and difficulties. My aim isn’t to dissuade anyone from going freelance because, for me, there have been many advantages. But it isn’t easier than being employed and it isn’t the best choice for everyone.

I have been teaching since the mid-1990s and it was by chance that I moved towards portfolio working. I had spent a very successful year teaching in terms of results in English and maths (what we now call embedding) and I was offered a role as a trainer for the Key Skills Support Programme.

Initially I ran three professional development days for them over the year, using three days of my annual leave. The experience was invaluable, and from this I gradually reduced my teaching time over the next 10 years and increased the time I was carrying out training and consultancy for a whole range of organisations (hence being a portfolio worker). Along the way I developed my expertise by, for example, working for awarding organisations marking test papers, moderating portfolios and becoming a regional lead for a number of national programmes – reading and keeping up to date as I went along.

All of this was very organic, but it didn’t happen by chance. I was networking, constantly applying for short contracts of work. My goodness, I wish I had a pound for every CV I have sent off over the past 25 years. You do need to be resilient because not every application is successful. And here is my first bit of advice – make sure that your CVs are specific to the role for which you are applying, and give examples of the work you have done and how you can contribute. I worked for a number of blue-chip companies before moving into teaching and this experience has served me well. Administration and being organised are central to success.

Yes, you need expertise in your subject area, but if you don’t hit your deadlines you’re not going to be given a second contract. Also, don’t assume that people will pay you if you don’t send in an invoice or that they will pay you promptly! So, you need to sort out your cash flow. You need to be very organised as you will now be in charge of paying your own tax (you must register with HMRC), national insurance, organising your pension, insurance, being your own IT technician and buying your own equipment (get a good printer!), as well as planning in time to do your admin.

Remember, too, that there are no paid holidays, no sick pay, and no-one other than yourself is there to organise your professional development. Looking back, I also recognise that I have done a lot of work for no remuneration and in other cases I wouldn’t want to work out how low my hourly rate actually was! If a piece of work takes longer than you expect, then tough. So do take time to plan out and cost the work involved, as accurately as you can, to make sure you aren’t left out of pocket.

However, taking on a particular piece of work is about more than the remuneration. It might give you some experience or it might allow you to work with someone from whom you can learn. So why do I do it? It has given me flexibility. This was a boon when my children were at home, but it did mean that I often worked into the early hours to hit deadlines. I do think that freelancing/portfolio working suits certain types of characters. On the one hand, there is an element of risk with which you must be comfortable while, on the other, there is more freedom – but it is only freedom if you are getting the work. What’s been more important for me is that I have been in control. 

It is also important to consider that you might feel isolated. No more opportunities for those quick catch-ups by the water dispenser. If this is important to you, you’ll need to find alternatives, even if it’s making time to have a cup of coffee with colleagues and contacts rather than always resorting to email. I would like to be able to say that you need a plan, but I didn’t have one in terms of where I thought my career would go. But you do need to plan your finances, for sure.

What I do think has helped is that I am inquisitive and hugely interested in the sector – perhaps just nosy. There hasn’t been one year when I haven’t done courses and many of them have led to qualifications or other forms of recognition. Colleagues in the FE sector are a generous lot and are willing to share. You also need to be generous and share. And always, always attribute other people’s work and materials if you are going to use them. If you choose to go freelance and become a portfolio worker, don’t expect to be better off financially, but it might just allow you to contribute to the sector in a different way than being a payroll employee.

Gail Lydon is a teacher, teaching and learning improvement adviser, researcher and project manager. She is a Fellow of SET.

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