Flexible working: A recruitment solution?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The difficulties schools are having in recruiting teachers continue to dominate the headlines. The DfE wants us to consider the option of flexible working. Just how might this work?

At the Association of School and College Leaders’ annual conference in March, education secretary Justine Greening indicated that there will be a summit on flexible working in the teaching profession, “to agree how to get a step-change in the classroom and in schools to see flexible working become the norm”.

In her speech she referred to the advantage of taking this approach if school leaders want to recruit and retain good teachers.

She said: “Flexible working won’t be the whole answer to recruitment and retention – there is no silver bullet – but it’s definitely a part of it and many schools are already demonstrating what’s possible.”

According to the Department for Education (DfE), flexible working encompasses:

  • Part-time working: either through fewer hours each day or fewer days a week.
  • Job sharing: two or more people do one job and split the hours.
  • Compressed hours: working full-time hours but over fewer days.
  • Staggered hours: different start, finish and break times from other workers.

Among those asking for a more flexible approach are teachers returning from maternity leave or a career break. Sarah Preston found the prospect of returning to her full-time teaching post difficult following the birth of her second child: “How is a work/life balance possible when you teach full-time and also have two young children?” she asks.

When she took maternity leave with her first child, circumstances were different.

With a sympathetic boss and a willing grandmother, she was able to return to work quite easily. Second time around, however, and the prospect was much more difficult.

“Life had suddenly become really hard,” Ms Preston told Headteacher Update. “I started to struggle with feelings of guilt – that I wasn’t teaching to the best of my ability nor was I spending enough time with my children.”

Ms Preston was recognised as an outstanding teacher; one that the school desperately wanted to retain. She continued: “I considered leaving the profession but knew that I loved teaching and it was something I was good at. I felt I made a difference and after a lot of soul searching, I knew I couldn’t bring myself to leave the profession completely.”

Fortunately, her employer recognised that Ms Preston needed an alternative. “I asked if I could go down to three days a week,” she explained. “After much discussion this was agreed and for four years I worked part-time. I was able to dedicate three days to my teaching and then spend my two days off being able to do the school run, household chores and any school work I had to catch up on. That then left the weekend free for me to dedicate to my family.”

The DfE document Flexible Working in Schools aims to encourage school leaders to consider flexible working alternatives while also ensuring they are aware of the legal implications. There is already an expectation that these arrangements might be offered to people whose family life is changing.

The document claims that flexible working is beneficial in relation to increased employee motivation, commitment, less absenteeism and better employee relationships. For Ms Preston, it also meant recognition that she was important to the school: “It made me feel valued as a member of staff because they made it clear they wanted to do whatever they could to help keep me there.”

Ms Preston was lucky. Her employer was sensitive to the benefits that flexible working can bring both to the employer and the employee. Not everyone sees the prospect in the same way.

A nuisance or a bonus?

Some employers take the view that staff asking for flexible working arrangements are an inconvenience. Schedules might need adjusting and there is perhaps the worry that if one person is given the flexibility then others will rush to have the same. Finding a match for a job share can initially be difficult and there can be the concern that a part-time role reduces commitment.

However, the Institute of Leadership and Management report Flexible Working: Goodbye nine to five shows that 82 per cent of managers think that flexible working benefits their businesses. Flexible Working in Schools, meanwhile, reports a number of advantages including:

  • A greater range of skills and experience across the school – more staff with a range of expertise to offer (a real benefit to small schools where curriculum responsibilities can be shared among a small number).
  • Staff less likely to take time off sick and more opportunity for cover if a job share is in place.
  • Quicker return to work in part-time positions after a maternity leave.
  • An alternative to early retirement for those moving towards the end of their careers.

Perhaps most importantly, staff who feel that the workplace has done its best to accommodate their needs are likely to have a more positive approach to their employer and their work.

Having a staged reintroduction to a full-time position can also help.

Ms Preston explained: “In September 2015 I was asked to return to teaching in year 6. This is possibly the worst year group to have a job share in but my employer was brilliant. She told me she wanted me back full-time but didn’t want me to feel pressured so we came up with a compromise. I would try working full-time for two-week blocks and if, at any point, things got stressful, I just had to say and she would sort something out.

“This compromise didn’t seem such a big jump and I gave it a go. I did it for the whole of the autumn term and by the end, my confidence that I could juggle motherhood with working full time was back and in January 2016, I returned to teaching full time.”

What Ms Preston and many other members of staff like her probably don’t realise is that she was entitled to ask for flexible working arrangements.

Legal implications

Teachers can ask for flexible working arrangements if they have worked continuously for the same employer for the last 26 weeks. The school leadership must consider the request and hold a meeting with the teacher to discuss it.

The request can only be refused if there are good reasons for doing so, such as:

  • The difficulties associated with the additional costs you would incur.
  • An inability to organise work among existing staff.
  • A planned structural change to the business.
  • A detrimental effect on performance, quality, or on the ability to meet “customer” demand.
  • Insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work.
  • An inability to recruit additional staff.

For those resistant to the idea of flexible working then this range of reasons for denial is ample.

However, school leaders would be wrong to dismiss any request too easily.

In Ms Preston’s case, the school’s flexibility meant that they kept an outstanding teacher and she was able to continue in a job that she loved without compromising her family or herself.

“My daughters are now older so the juggling is a lot easier. The support of my employers was paramount in allowing me to remain in a profession I love.” 

Further information

  • Flexible Working in Schools: Guidance for local authorities, maintained schools, academies and free schools, Department for Education, February 2017: http://bit.ly/2qJyrj6
  • Flexible Working: Goodbye nine to five, Institute of Leadership and Management, March 2013: http://bit.ly/2rvudg2

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