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Flexible working at school: a quick guide

Flexible working should be available to all, but schools still struggle to support it. Anna Trethewey offers her tips

Flexible working

First, a story for you: on a hot June afternoon at the Festival of Education, I brought together three teachers and a headteacher for a panel called "Making Flexible Working Work". It was standing-room only and, as the discussion progressed, we were interrupted by someone.

“This panel has made me want to weep,” said a teacher in the audience. “It has offered me hope that there are people out there who want to work differently.”

She wasn’t the only teacher who spoke up. We heard of teachers who had been “bruised” by the negotiation process of trying to get part-time work and others who were on the edge of leaving the profession or had already left due to lack of flexible working and part-time opportunities.

But flexible working should be readily available to all, and it isn’t as difficult to facilitate as some school leaders might think. Here is my quick guide to making flexible working work.

A couple of points to remember:

Flexible working is not the same as part-time working

Flexible working is being able to work some or all of your normal working week in a way that suits yours and your school's way of working. For what it’s worth, I think it’s important to offer both flexible and part-time working.  

Flexible working is important for teacher retention

We are in an era when fewer teachers make it through to retirement, with one in four leaving before they have been in the profession for three years. Women aged between 30-39 are the most likely to leave for non-retirement reasons. Furthermore, NFER analysis finds that many secondary teachers leave full-time teaching to take on a part-time job elsewhere. This comes as no surprise to me: as much as I loved teaching, I couldn’t see a future for myself as a parent in a school where the line from senior leaders was "We don’t do part-time working here" and presenteeism was rewarded.

Why are some schools resistant to flexible working?

Some of the common justifications I hear for not supporting flexible working are:

  • “We need bodies in front of children. Working flexibly is all very nice for an office job but in teaching it just isn’t possible.”
  • “It’s too complicated to implement at scale.”
  • “It costs too much.”
  • “People just need to manage their workload better.”

If you’ve heard the arguments above before (or even made some yourself), it’s worth asking yourself the following questions:

Apart from contact time, what do you actually need your staff to be on site for?

Joint planning? Collaborative curriculum planning? Break duties? Figure out your non-negotiables before you figure out where there might be flexibility.

What CPD can be delivered more flexibly?

Is there pre-reading or online learning people can do in their own time that cuts out that classic experience where someone reads out a PowerPoint for an hour after school that you easily could have read at home yourself once the kids were in bed?

What is getting in the way of you letting your teachers take their PPA off site?

If it’s an unwieldy timetabling software that locks people into being on site, you could consider an alternative, such as Edval, to work more intuitively with what works for staff without compromising on the quality of education you provide. If it’s that you don’t trust them to use it sensibly, perhaps it’s worth taking a long hard look in the mirror to think about what kind of culture you are creating.

What’s the worst that can happen?

Yes, everyone might request to work from home on a Friday afternoon but as long as you are clear and consistent from the outset in explaining to people why not all requests can work, then you have nothing to fear.

Can you afford not to do it?

In the short term, there is a time and resource cost (such as new software) to get flexible working up and running. However, if you compare that with the costs associated with supply and recruitment agencies and advertising, it’s a worthwhile investment. Short-term pain for long-term gain.

Is there a workload issue at your school?

A good way to spot this is if there are a number of teachers off for stress-related reasons and early career teachers who leave the profession. If you suspect there is, flexible and part-time working may help, but it won’t solve the problem long-term. If you suspect that people are asking to cut down on their hours simply to manage workload, I suggest you tackle the root cause of the problem first.

Is flexible working a silver bullet to address teacher retention? No, most certainly not. But it is a way to engender a culture where professionals are trusted to manage their own workload and development. Given what we know about the importance of professional autonomy, this is a vital step in keeping good teachers in the profession.

Anna Trethewey is a senior associate at the thinktank LKMco. She has taught in schools in London and Norfolk. She tweets at @annatreth.

LKMco and the Tes are joining forces with other sector leaders to hold a free event on flexible working on 15 November 2018 at Bobby Moore Academy in Stratford at 6pm. For more details, see here

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