Speaking at the summit at Ark All Saints Academy in Camberwell, the Secretary of State said the education system needed to improve its flexible working offer to continue to attract high-calibre individuals into teaching and close the gender pay gap. The summit was convened after Justine Greening earlier this year said she wanted flexible working practices – such as part-time working and job shares – to become the "norm" in schools across the country.
In a DfE video filmed for the event, Dame Alison Peacock, the CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching said the college was very supportive of looking at ways for teachers to work flexibly.
Unions and Research
Earlier this year, unions revealed that there has been a rise in disputes involving members seeking flexible working. Chris Keates, General Secretary of NASUWT, said "Even when teachers are granted flexibility, there are countless cases where unfairness and exploitation flourishes, with many teachers still expected to undertake work related activities on days they are not supposed to be working, invariably without payment." An earlier report from the National Foundation for Educational Research, had argued that better part-time working conditions must be urgently created in secondary schools to try and prevent older teachers leaving the sector in increasing numbers.
DfE Guidance on Flexible Working
In February, the DfE published flexible working guidance and has now released a further publication on increasing flexible working in schools. The government is releasing a new "myth buster" to help answer questions school leaders may have around recruiting for roles with flexible hours.
The ten myths which the guide wants to dispel are:
- The teaching profession simply does not lend itself to flexible working;
- Flexible working is for other sectors – working at home and staggered hours just can not happen in teaching;
- If I advertise a teaching job part-time, I will not get any applicants;
- Flexible working is too expensive, especially at a time when school budgets are tight;
- Children's learning in primary school benefits from having one consistent class teacher;
- Splitting classes between teachers leads to worse outcomes for secondary school pupils;
- Working flexibly does nothing to ease workload – teachers and leaders are paid less but do the same amount of work as their full-time colleagues;
- Flexible working is impossible to timetable;
- It is not possible for part-time teachers to have middle or senior leadership positions in schools – leadership roles need a single job holder to be accountable;
- Part-time teachers and leaders are just not as committed.
Among the new plans unveiled by the education secretary are:
- A pilot programme to look at how schools are already bolstering the careers of part-time teachers, so best practice can be shared;
- A pilot to strengthen the Women Leading in Education coaching offer, so women can continue to get professional development support; and
- Updating existing guidance on flexible working to make it easier for schools to know what works.
Although the timing of the pilot programmes has not yet been announced, the DfE said it would also consider including the need for more part-time or flexible vacancies as part of the proposals for its new teacher vacancy website.
Issues for School Leaders
This all sounds good and proper, and certainly logical given the ever increasing recruitment and retention issues in the profession; but considering flexible working expectations are on the increase and have now been promoted by the DfE itself, what are the practical implications for schools? Teachers who have their work-life balance needs met are more likely to be content, productive and loyal; resulting in better staff retention and savings on recruitment.
However, allocating resources within the school budget is difficult enough, without the added complication of extra staff, additional administration and duplicated costs. Ordinary tasks, such as organising staff meetings can become a challenge. Therefore, there are both legal and practical considerations that will impact on the decisions made by schools when asked to arrange flexible working by their staff.
Employees with 26 continuous weeks of service with their employer have a statutory right to make a request for flexible working. When a school receives an application which meets all the qualifying requirements, it must consider the request in a reasonable manner and in a timely fashion. It can only refuse a request for a stated business reason.
With an increasing number of teachers wanting to be able to work flexibly, it is important for schools to embrace flexible working arrangements, but from a pragmatic viewpoint. A failure to do so can prove costly – not only can you lose valuable staff who do not wish to return because they have significant care or personal responsibilities, but it can be a turn-off for potential job candidates. Even if a member of staff is not eligible to make a statutory request, you should consider whether you can accommodate their informal application according to the school’s operational needs.
Although it is true that some types of flexible working, for example, home working, does not necessarily lend itself well to some roles in schools, there are other options that could work well, such as part-time work, job sharing or staggered hours. Larger organisations, such as multi-academy trusts, may be able to afford more flexibility due to the number of roles within the organisation. Schools and academies are already actively promoting that they support flexible working arrangements on their websites and in current advertisements – certainly one method to help address the ongoing recruitment crisis.
The practicalities of flexible working
Schools should have a clear policy in place. Flexible working arrangements require a great degree of co-operation, communication and forward-planning. Inevitably, however, the decision on flexible working is likely to depend on the circumstances of individual requests and the context of each school. Any policy that broadly protected the school’s right to reject requests, in accordance with the law, should offer schools adequate protection.
The real danger, which usually goes hand-in-hand with requests for flexible working, is that of sex discrimination claims. Schools that take a pragmatic, consistent and open approach to dealing with staff are likely to significantly minimise their risk. Clearly this will be a complex balance of employment law, leadership management, and financial pressures, along with the drive by unions and staff to engage with these new initiatives. It is more important than ever that school leaders seek expert HR advice to ensure their policies are fit for purpose and cases are handled correctly.