How flexible working can succeed in your primary school

Written by: Colin Hooker | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Flexible working is increasingly seen as a solution to recruitment and retention challenges, especially given our recent experience during Covid. Colin Hooker advises on some effective ways to offer flexible options which benefit schools, staff and pupils

The pandemic has jolted us out of our comfort zone and forced society to change the way it thinks about the working day. Having made rapid adaptations during lockdown, many organisations are continuing to allow their employees to work flexibly. As a result, more people are able to balance work and family commitments, look after their wellbeing and maintain, if not improve, their productivity.

It is a leap of progress for the business world, but opportunities for flexible working in schools have traditionally been few and far between. After all, when the children are in the classroom, teachers have to be there too!

The good news is that flexible working can certainly work for schools. The solution lies not in the corporate set-up of home offices, virtual hubs and global co-worker spaces, but in a tailored approach to flexible working which fits in with the needs of the school and its pupils.

Fresh thinking for schools

Following the pandemic, we have seen that headteachers are increasingly recognising the merits of offering flexible working and are seeking advice on how to make it work for their schools.

In November, the government published new guidance on flexible working (DfE, 2021), stating that schools had reported a range of benefits from implementing flexible options. These include retaining experienced staff, being able to recruit from a broader pool of teachers, promoting wellbeing and improving work/life balance.

The guidance also reminds us that offering flexible working arrangements can help to ensure that teaching suits employees at different stages of their life, such as those with caring responsibilities, planning a phased retirement, returning from a career break, or combining teaching with professional development or work in their field of study.

The guidance document sets out ways for schools to build flexibility into the working day. The main approaches as identified by research into flexible working commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE, 2019) involve:

  • Part-time: Working less than full-time hours and/or working fewer days.
  • Job-share: Two or more people doing one job and splitting the hours.
  • Split role: Tasks divided between two part-time job holders.
  • Split shifts: A working shift comprising two or more separate periods of duty in a day.
  • Staggered hours: The employee has different start, finish and break times from other staff.
  • Staggered weeks: Such as a formal agreement to work outside term time to deliver booster classes/sports programmes/enrichment activities.
  • Compressed hours: Working full-time hours but over fewer days.
  • Home/remote working: Regularly/formally agreed as part of directed time/timetabled hours.
  • Phased retirement: Gradually reduced working hours and/or responsibilities.
  • Annualised hours: Working hours spread across the year, which may include some school closure days or where hours vary across the year to suit the school and employee.
  • Sabbatical: Employee takes a period of time away from work, over and above annual leave (usually the job is kept open for them to return).
  • Career break: Employee takes unpaid time off work. Contract is suspended or ended, without a guaranteed return, depending on policy and individual agreement.
  • Flexi/lieu time: Paid time off work in return for having worked additional hours.
  • Family leave: Days of authorised leave during term time, for example to care for family members.

While none of these measures are new, the difference is that changing attitudes, improvements in technology and buy-in from parents and the wider school community could well make flexible working the norm rather than the exception.

In a recent article, Timewise, a flexible working consultancy, identified four crucial success factors for flexible working: leadership, communication, a team-based approach, and open-mindedness (Timewise, 2021). The article also suggested some approaches:

  • Actively promoting part-time and job share roles, integrating the request process into timetabling and advertising positions as open to flexibility.
  • Having half of the teaching staff working four days a week, and using the resources this frees up to enhance the curriculum with specialist teachers and coaches.
  • Expecting that teachers will want flexibility, and managing timetabling accordingly, with an annual review and clarity on what’s possible.

Reimagining the job-share

One tried and tested approach to flexible working in schools is the job-share. However, job-shares have not always proved to be universally popular and parents sometimes express concern that their children do not receive the continuity of teaching that a single member of staff provides.

However, when they are done well, job-shares can be hugely valuable for teaching and learning as having two classroom teachers can expose children to a wider range of knowledge, experience and insight.

Marie Staley, headteacher of Moulsham Junior School in Essex explains how job-shares work in her school: “We aim to marry up teachers’ strengths and skills in a job-share partnership. For example, one of my current job-share teachers is really creative and artistic, the other is very knowledgeable in science and technology. The teachers complement each other with their deep subject knowledge, which is great for the pupils.”

Children can definitely benefit from a well-designed job-share with each teacher bringing their own strengths to the partnership. The teachers involved will be able to devote their energy to the job during their chosen hours, happy in the knowledge that they can balance their home lives with the demands of their teaching role.

However, communication can make or break a job-share, and it is essential that the teachers involved have access to dedicated time for exchanging information about the children in the class.

Ms Staley continued: “Job-shares are remarkably effective when the communication is clear and the teachers are sharing specialisms and passions. The children really benefit.

“I tend to have my job-share teachers working with my job-share heads of year too, so there is a broad appreciation and an understanding of the challenges involved.”

Smarter planning time

The government’s new guidance suggests ways of considering flexible working on a whole-school level by designing solutions which work for wider groups of staff. This could include reviewing arrangements for when staff can work from home, and looking at how planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time is scheduled.

There are certainly opportunities for schools to find creative ways of building flexibility into non-teaching time.

Ms Staley finds that the staff at her school appreciate having the flexibility to use their planning time in the way that suits them best: “All our staff are able to take their PPA time at home,” she explained. “They can choose to do a supermarket shop on a Wednesday afternoon and save their planning for Sunday morning if that works better for them. Everyone can choose how to manage their time as a professional.”

When staff have the freedom to manage their own time, they are likely to be much more productive. A great lesson is still a great lesson whether the teacher has planned it while working in the staffroom, at the kitchen table or from a café in town.

A meeting of minds

As we all know, video calls have their limitations and they will never be quite the same as a proper staff get-together with tea and biscuits. But even though in-person gatherings are back on the agenda, there is no reason to abandon the virtual meeting altogether if it can support flexible working.

Scheduling the occasional online meeting can add welcome flexibility to a teacher’s diary. Similarly, enabling a teacher to dial into a face-to-face meeting from their home, if the technology allows, can make all the difference for someone who is juggling family commitments.

Schools can promote flexible working in the way they structure their meetings too, as Ms Staley explained: “We plan our professional development meetings for the whole term and we ensure they’re succinct and focused. We also keep two of those sessions free, so a group of teachers might go off and do an activity together, or they might choose to go home early to walk the dog or meet a friend for coffee.”

A positive impact

Schools may not be in a position to agree to every flexible working request that comes their way, but there are bound to be opportunities for school and staff to meet halfway by building elements of flexibility into the school day.

If schools are open to the possibility of flexible working, they will see a number of clear benefits. As the government guidance states, school leaders who have already implemented flexible working in their schools are reporting a positive effect on recruitment and retention. Teachers are more likely to stay and work for a school which understands their needs rather than searching for a more flexible role elsewhere.

Similarly, the impact of flexible working on teacher wellbeing and work/life balance should not be underestimated. A teacher with a flexible role will be better equipped to give their all when they are in the classroom, and that is good for their leaders, colleagues and, most importantly, their pupils.

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