Flexible working: how our trust is reaping the benefits

The CEO of a flexible working ambassador MAT explains the changes it has made and the advantages of schools allowing more flexible working
25th March 2024, 6:00am


Flexible working: how our trust is reaping the benefits

flexible working

This article was originally published on 8 November 2023

One of the greatest changes to work culture in recent years has been the rapid increase in flexible working expectations.

Estimates suggest that as many as 44 per cent of British workers work from home at least some of the time, making the option of flexible working an ever more important part of recruitment and retention.

The education sector is no exception but teaching dramatically lags behind other professions in terms of flexible or hybrid working arrangements.

The National Foundation for Educational Research’s 2023 annual report on the teacher labour market in England suggests that although the number of teachers afforded opportunities to work from home has increased in recent years, the number of hybrid roles remains far below those available in other sectors.

The need for greater support of the teaching workforce is urgent amid reports that the target for new trainee secondary teachers will be missed by 48 per cent and that vacancy rates are rising rapidly.

Furthermore, there is the worrying trend that the biggest demographic to exit the sector over the past year has been women aged 30-39. This suggests a clear “motherhood penalty” in education, as primary caregivers are unable to find the flexibility they need in schools and so leave the profession.

For our trust, where women make up 82 per cent of our workforce, it is an issue that we are keenly aware of. Flexible working has been a priority since the formation of the trust in 2016.

This is one reason why we were recently selected to become a flexible working ambassador multi-academy trust, as part of the Department for Education’s programme to support flexible working.

Flexible working in schools

So, what have we done and what advice would we offer other trusts looking at flexible working, too?

The first thing to recognise is that flexible working can encompass a raft of ideas.

Across the trust we have implemented changes ranging from allowing staff to do planning from home, to accommodating reduced hours, flexible retirement options and job-share arrangements.

We also proactively use flexible working as a reasonable adjustment to support staff through periods of personal difficulty, placing compassion at the heart of our approach.

This flexibility mean staff are able to balance their lives with the demands of the job, meaning we are able to retain them for longer, rather than seeing them leave and the upheaval that causes.

While offering this to staff when personal circumstances change is perhaps more obvious, we have also accommodated flexible working requests for staff who compete in sports at national and international levels, helping them to have time for their passions and ensuring that we have a loyal workforce who know the trust supports them as individuals.

Of course, doing this is not always easy.

In our experience, the biggest barrier to flexible working is often the attitude of headteachers, who sometimes are unable to visualise flexible working models in a broader strategic context or feel hamstrung by the risk of inequality.

Previously requests for flexible working have been refused due to a perception that it causes disruption to learning. However, high turnover of staff is certainly a greater disruption - particularly in the context of the special educational needs and disabilities specialists or teachers working throughout our schools, who have highly specialised skillsets and build close bonds with pupils.

Flexible working models must then be reframed as a “planned change” that efficiently delivers equitable outcomes and reduces the need for reactive changes. This will help to shift mindsets and make heads see the benefits of accepting requests when they can.

But taking HR advice, when required, is essential to ensure that consistent and reasonable decisions are made. Not every request can be balanced with the school’s needs.

Getting HR right

So continuous engagement with HR colleagues is important. Heads need to know that they have HR support from the trust, too, as some may feel they have to take decisions alone, especially if they are new to a trust set-up.

Conducting open conversations with our workforce and trade unions, wherever feasible, and having a robust appeals process are also paramount.

Keeping governors and families well-informed of changes in working arrangements is also important in implementing and maintaining a successful flexible working system. Many parents and carers worry if their child’s teaching changes, so it is essential to keep families in the loop.

Finally, the trust’s leadership must ensure that it is unified in backing flexible working, demonstrating that there is a culture that supports it and champions it wherever possible - while also understanding that different schools have varying cultures, contexts and approaches.

These practical steps, coupled with a cultural shift led from the top, have enabled us to change attitudes and develop a can-do attitude, ultimately allowing us to adopt a more modern and agile approach to working, affording countless benefits to our staff, students, families and the wider learning community.

Warren Carratt is the chief executive of Nexus Multi-Academy Trust

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