As far as the law is concerned, you have the right to take unpaid time off work to deal with certain emergencies that may arise involving a dependant. A dependant is generally described as a husband, wife, partner, child, parent or anyone living in your household as a member of the family. They can also be someone who reasonably relies on you for help.
Employers should not penalise their employees for taking time off as compassionate leave provided that you give them adequate reasons for your leave and those reasons are genuine.
That said, the right to take time off as compassionate leave and at short notice will only be relevant in the case of an emergency.
The best thing is to be frank with your head or line manager. The more information they have about your situation, the more reasonable they can be about time off. Give as much notice as you can of periods when your wife might be in hospital and when you would need to look after your children.
If possible, request the time off in writing. The amount of days you take off will vary, and although there is no set time it will depend on the nature of the emergency. Usually a couple of days are considered reasonable. Your employer does not have to pay you but they may choose to do so.
It is also worth checking your contract of employment, which may cover compassionate leave in the event that your reason is not considered an emergency. If your school decides that this is not an emergency, you still have the right to request time off. You would need to have been employed for at least one year to qualify. You could take paid leave, ask your employer for unpaid leave or consider moving to flexible working hours.
Information from Match Solicitors, www.matchsolicitors.com
This is where leadership and management interact. Schools have to manage staff absence effectively. Both local authority and school-based policies provide for compassionate leave. Such policies can rarely cover all eventualities. At one time a local authority would provide for time off for a relative's funeral, but not a best friend. I have always responded more positively to such requests.
While school leadership can reflect equity and fairness through a clear policy and procedure, it should also be flexible. For example, hospitalisation is an emergency and leave ought to be provided. There is always an expectation that staff will minimise any leave of absence involving looking after their children by seeking appropriate childcare.
I have found that well-treated staff provide high levels of commitment. Staff work in a collegiate situation and should be treated with thought, professionalism and a duty of care: this should be a key part of the value system of any school.
Mike Welsh is vice-president of the National Association of Head Teachers, www.naht.org.uk.