by Stella Odusola, Senior Consultant
In 2023, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) highlighted that there was “considerable perceptual evidence that flexible working can support recruitment, retention, and workforce stability.” Part-time working and job shares have been the main forms of flexible working in schools, despite the wide variety on offer, including remote working to compressed hours, flexitime, annualised hours and phased retirement. Concerns around timetabling, cultural norms present in individual schools and attitudinal barriers often mean that many of these options are not explored.
The Department for Education (DfE) defines flexible working as ‘arrangements which allow employees to vary the amount, timing, or location of their work.’ Despite this, many employees are reluctant to request flexible arrangements. As it stands, employees can apply for flexible working if they’ve worked continuously for the same employer for 26 weeks. This is known as ‘making a statutory application.’
The DfE set out the basic steps as:
- The employee writes to the employer.
- The employer considers the request and makes a decision within 3 months – or longer if agreed with the employee.
- If the employer agrees to the request, they must change the terms and conditions in the employee’s contract.
- If the employer disagrees, they must write to the employee giving the business reasons for the refusal. The employee may be able to complain to an employment tribunal.
Updates to existing legislation are due by merit of The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023. The Regulations mean that from 6 April 2024, employees will have the right to request flexible working from “day one” of their employment.
The proposed government reforms include:
- Making the right to request flexible working a day-one right.
- Requiring employers to consult with employees before rejecting a flexible working request.
- Allowing up to two flexible working requests within 12 months, increased from the current one.
- Reducing the employer response time from three months to two.o.
- Removing the need for employees to explain how their flexible working request could be accommodated.
Whilst upcoming legislation on flexible working presents a unique set of challenges that must be carefully managed to maintain the primary goal of delivering high-quality education, the benefits of flexible working are numerous. They include improved staff well-being and address the ongoing challenge of declining teacher recruitment figures. 2021/2022 figures indicate new entrant numbers to Initial Teacher Training (ITT) fell to 28,991, a 20% decrease from 36,159. 2023/2024 figures have seen a further 5% reduction.
For school leaders, the most significant concern in implementing flexible working is maintaining a consistent and high standard of teaching. This is particularly challenging with arrangements like job-sharing or staggered hours, where consistency in teaching methods and maintaining the student-teacher relationship are crucial. Schools operate on a fixed timetable intricately planned to accommodate various subjects, student groups, and room availability. Incorporating flexible working hours can complicate this process significantly, especially in secondary education, where subject specialisms are involved.
Other factors for consideration include:
- Staff Collaboration and Communication: When staff members work different hours, or some are off-site, ensuring effective communication and collaboration can be challenging. This situation can affect team dynamics, resource-sharing strategies, and the overall school culture. To overcome this, schools can utilise collaboration tools like video conferencing and project management software. Integrating onsite and remote meetings and one-on-one check-ins can also help maintain team cohesion, collaboration and communication.
- Workload Management: There is a potential risk of unequal workload distribution. Full-time staff may perceive that they are shouldering more responsibilities than their part-time colleagues. Balancing this perception and ensuring equitable workload distribution is a delicate task. The school’s executive teams must work to encourage open dialogue among staff to discuss workload concerns and find collective solutions.
- Resource Allocation and Financial Implications: Implementing flexible working arrangements may require hiring additional staff to cover various shifts or investing in technology for remote working. These changes can impose financial strains on school budgets. To overcome this, school leaders should conduct a cost-benefit analysis to understand the financial implications of commitments to flexible working. Where effective, they may consider a phased approach to implementing flexible working to spread the cost over time whilst assessing viability and expansion.
- Equity and Fairness: There could be challenges around equity, with some staff unable to take advantage of flexible working due to the nature of their roles or personal circumstances, potentially leading to dissatisfaction or a perception of unfairness. Schools should work with staff to develop a comprehensive policy on flexible working that considers various roles and personal circumstances, ensuring that all staff have access to some form of flexible working arrangement where possible. For roles that cannot be flexible (e.g., administrative positions or leadership), schools should consider alternative benefits or compensations.
- Parent and Community Expectations: Parents and the community often have set expectations about teacher availability and the structure of the school day. Flexible working arrangements can disrupt these expectations and may require effective communication and management to address concerns. School leaders should establish clear guidelines and communication channels so parents know when and how to contact teachers or access school resources. The use of Virtual Learning Environments may be a helpful resource.
- Cultural Shift: Implementing flexible working requires a significant cultural shift within the school environment. Traditional norms and expectations around working hours and presence on-site need to be re-evaluated and adjusted, which can be slow and challenging. School leaders should start with a pilot programme to introduce flexible working arrangements, allowing staff and stakeholders to adjust to the new system. Training and professional development for staff to adapt to new ways of working and collaborating will be vital to this success. Regular feedback from staff and stakeholders to assess the impact of these changes will be key to making necessary adjustments for successfully embedding the shift.
Where flexible working has been adopted into practice, it offers a myriad of benefits for both employers and employees.
- Increased Productivity: Contrary to traditional beliefs, flexible working often leads to higher productivity. Employees working in their preferred environments and hours tend to be more focused and efficient.
- Enhanced Employee Well-being: Flexibility in work arrangements has been linked to improved mental health, reduced stress, and better work-life balance, leading to happier, healthier employees.
- Attraction and Retention of Talent: Offering flexible working options makes the institution more attractive to potential employees. It’s particularly appealing to those with caring responsibilities, those pursuing professional qualifications or prioritising work-life balance.
The Headteacher at Kings’ School in Winchester, Matthew Leeming, explained that flexible working has long been a part of their school’s approach, helping them to retain great teachers by giving staff the ability to better balance their personal and professional lives.
The benefits of a well-implemented flexible working model in schools are varied – from retaining experienced staff and expanding the pool of potential teachers to enhancing wellbeing and work-life balance. The challenge lies in striking a balance that meets the needs of both staff and students without compromising educational quality and operational efficiency. With thoughtful planning and an open-minded approach, flexible working can become an asset in the evolving landscape of education.