Until now, the right to request flexible working arrangements has been confined to parents and those caring for disabled adults. It has been extended several times over the past few years, most recently to cover parents of children aged up to 16 last year. In this year's Queen's Speech, the Government promised to widen this still further to cover all employees.
But many teachers and heads are unaware of their existing rights and responsibilities. An informal conversation with your employer is often the best place to start. "We would always advise you first to approach your headteacher informally with the kind of working pattern you have in mind," says Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT.
A flexible working arrangement can often be agreed without involving the statutory process. "I feel it is important to respond positively to such requests where possible," says Jeff Brown, headteacher at Hobbayne Primary School in Ealing, west London. "That way, employees feel supported and can give their best on behalf of the school."
If you get nowhere with an informal approach, you may be eligible to make a statutory request for flexible working. Parents of children aged up to 16, parents of disabled children aged up to 18 and carers of a disabled adult are legally entitled to request a flexible working pattern. This does not cover supply teachers, and you must have worked for your present employer for more than 26 weeks. Applications must be made in writing using a form or template available from your employer or union.
Once your application has been received, your employer has 28 days to arrange a meeting to discuss your request. They also have a statutory duty to give your request serious consideration. You can be accompanied to the meeting by a union representative or colleague and should receive written notification of the outcome of the application within 14 days.
If your request is granted, your new working pattern will begin on a date agreed with your employer. This will usually mean a permanent change to your contract of employment.
Employers can only reject a statutory request for specific reasons set out in the legislation rather than object in principle to flexible working. Acceptable reasons include the burden of additional costs or an inability to recruit additional staff. "It is of concern to us that we still get a number of referrals from members who have had their requests turned down," says Ms Keates.
If your request has been rejected you have 14 days in which to appeal to a panel drawn from the governing body.
If the governing body turns down your request, you can take it to an industrial tribunal, but only on the grounds that the school has not complied with the regulations, or that you feel you have been discriminated against because of your sex.
But with some headteachers reluctant to support flexible-working arrangements, even a successful request may not be the end of the story. Victoria, a primary teacher from London, found her life at school became difficult after her request for flexible working had been successful.
"It was made clear to me that I had let everybody down by putting my family's needs above the needs of the school," she says. Working relationships became strained and she eventually left the school.
In contrast, Ms Keates urges headteachers to value the positive contribution that part-time and job-share teachers can make. "With jobshare in particular you are getting the commitment of two people to one job," she says.
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP
- Flexible Working for Parents and Carers booklet from www.nasuwt.org.uk
- Information for employers, employees and flexible-working application templates from www.direct.gov.uk
- Flexible Working and Work-Life Balance booklet from www.acas.org.uk.