Flexible working: How can it work for your school?

Written by: Louise Hatswell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Over the last 18 months more school staff will have worked flexibly than ever before, but what does flexible working actually mean in the school context? Louise Hatswell looks at employment law, best practice and offers some guidance for employers

The government defines flexible working as “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finishing times or working from home”.

And while that is true, I think it is much more than that. There are lots of different ways of working flexibly and you could choose one, or a combination, of them. They include:

  • Part-time
  • Annualised hours
  • Compressed hours
  • Job share
  • Flexitime
  • Phased retirement
  • Term-time working
  • Working from home
  • Staggered start/finish times

Ultimately, flexible working has three core elements: where, when, and how much?


Where?

Pre-pandemic, many education employers saw location as a barrier to flexible working, particularly for teaching staff. But we now know this is not the case.

Although teachers will usually need to be in school for teaching, most other elements of their roles can be carried out effectively from alternative locations.

Our members tell us they are planning to keep some virtual ways of working including online parents’ evenings, governors’ meetings, and staff meetings.

Allowing staff to leave at the end of the school day and attend these events from home a little later means the rush hour commute can be avoided, with the added benefit for working parents that they can collect their children from school or childcare. When the meeting ends, staff (and governors) are already at home and the site manager hasn’t had to stay late to lock up, with a benefit to work/life balance and wellbeing for all.

PPA (planning, preparation and assessment) or leadership and management time can also be carried out effectively off-site. It helps if this can be timetabled for a full or half-day – half-days can be more manageable in primaries where PPA is often timetabled in this way.

Members of the senior leadership team, including the school business leader (SBL) and other mainly office-based roles, offer opportunities for remote working. A rota could be set up to allow all members of the team to work from home for a set number of days each week or fortnight.


When?

Staggered start and finish times can work well in schools or colleges, particularly for secondary teachers where their first or last period of the day may be a non-contact or PPA slot. Compressed or annualised hours can work well for SBLs, who could work extra hours during busier weeks for financial year-end and governors’ meetings, then less hours through quieter weeks or in school holidays. Alternatively, they could work longer days from Monday to Thursday and a shorter day on a Friday.


How much?

Term-time and part-time working are two options that are widely used in schools and job-shares are becoming increasingly popular. As part of its 2019 Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy, the Department for Education has produced some useful resources, including case study videos on job-shares and part-time working and posters to promote flexible working benefits (see, DfE, 2019).


Who can ask to work flexibly?

Any employee with 26 weeks’ service with the same employer has a right to make a formal flexible working request (see further information for a link to the government’s flexible working information webpages), with many employers now offering this as a “day one right”.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is running a #flexfrom1st campaign, while the government is proposing to make it a day one right for all employees in its consultation Making flexible working the default (DBEI, 2021).

It is important for employers to be aware of, and familiar with, the relevant legislation set out in UK law when reviewing flexible working arrangements and related policies.

As an employee, remember that if you have 26 weeks’ service, or your employer has a day one clause, you have a legal right to submit a formal flexible working request that, if agreed, would form part of your employment contract. You may also be able to make an informal request, agreed with your line manager, to take place on an ad-hoc or occasional basis.


The benefits

So, as an employer, how can you benefit from agreeing flexible working requests?

The pandemic has highlighted how effective flexible working can be, in ways many never thought possible. Everyone is familiar with remote working in some way, and technology has helped us stay connected both professionally and personally.

Recording staff briefings or department meetings allows part-time staff to stay involved with things that happen on their non-working days.

Many employers in the wider workforce are not planning to return to pre-pandemic working arrangements. Research from the CIPD (2020) shows that 40 per cent of employers expect more than half of their workforce to work from home regularly after the pandemic has ended.

Many of these roles will be in graduate professions and may become a more appealing option to young people. With the public sector pay freeze and the move to £30,000 starting salaries for teachers delayed, we simply must embrace flexible working opportunities for all education staff.

It is easy to focus on the perceived barriers to flexible working, particularly in education, but this shouldn’t be the case. It is a fantastic recruitment and retention tool for employers.


How can we be more flexible?

  • Do you have a Flexible Working Policy?
  • Have you reviewed it recently?
  • Do you implement it reactively or proactively?
  • Does it include a “day one” right to make a request?
  • Do all staff know about the policy?
  • Have you approved any requests?
  • Do you mention it in your job adverts or on your website?

If you are answering no to all or most of these questions, then there is work to do. Start by reviewing your policy, getting staff and trade union representatives involved.

Move from a reactive approach to a proactive one. You may “tick all the boxes” and have a policy that sits in a folder or on a network somewhere but in practice it is never mentioned.

Being proactive means the policy is well publicised, all staff know about it and know how to make a request, with leaders and managers exemplifying this by asking about flexible working during line management meetings and, often, by working flexibly themselves (showing that it is taken seriously).

Many women want to return to a flexible working pattern after maternity leave and, with a reactive approach, may see their request rejected. There also seems to be a misconception that leadership roles can only be carried out with a full-time working pattern, which is almost certainly a contributory factor to the imbalance in the number of women in leadership roles compared to the workforce breakdown overall.

The Association of School and College Leaders has produced a number of cases studies from members working flexibly successfully in a variety of leadership roles (see further information).

Flexible working is a simple, cheap (often free) and extremely effective way for schools to retain talented staff.

Review job adverts, think what flexible working opportunities could work for that role. Consider adding the “Happy to talk flexible working” strapline and logo (see the Working Families website). You will extend your field of potential candidates to also include those looking for flexible working.

Eight Flexible Working Ambassador Schools have been set up by the DfE (see further information) to champion flexible working and provide practical support to schools to enable them to offer more opportunities and address challenges.

You may not be able to approve every request, but the answer doesn’t have to be no – have the conversation and see what could work. It is all about being flexible! So, give it a go, let’s get flexible. What have you got to lose?

  • Louise Hatswell is pay and conditions of employment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.


Further information & resources


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