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Know your rights

Continuing her new series, this week Susannah Kirkman reviews the new legislation on flexible working.

It's one of the ironies of teaching that those who nurture other people's children find it difficult to meet the needs of their own. But if you want to go part-time or job-share to spend more time with your children, your case could be strengthened by the new legislation on flexible working, due to take effect from April 2003.

The new rules say that mothers and fathers have the right to request changes to their working pattern to help them care for their children, and that employers have a "statutory duty" to consider applications.

Currently, many teachers face a battle with reluctant employers to reduce their hours. Kerry George, senior assistant secretary at the National Association of Head Teachers, says the new regulations are important because they show that the Government wants flexible working to be taken seriously. But she is dismayed by the excessively complicated procedures that employees will have to endure. "The regulations are a nightmare and the process bureaucratic," she explains.

The new rules say that if you want to request flexible working, you must have a child under six, or a disabled child under 18. You must have worked for your employer for 26 weeks continuously before you make your application .

Then you will need to get your head round the tortuous application process. Set out the working pattern you'd like in writing. Within 28 days, there will be a meeting with your employer to discuss your suggestion. Your employer must write to you within 14 days of the meeting, either agreeing or explaining on "clear business grounds" why it is being refused. You have the right to appeal within 14 days of your employer's decision.

Another drawback is that your altered working pattern will be a permanent change to the terms and conditions of your employment, so it is vital that you get the right contract. You need to make sure that your school duties take place on your working days, and that you will be paid for any training which takes place outside your normal working hours, for instance. To get a fair deal, check with your union before you draw up your request for flexible working.

This complicated rigmarole won't be necessary at schools which have already adopted family-friendly policies. "The principle is that if you want conscientious, hard-working and loyal employees, these are the people who will want to take responsibility for their own families," says Rosemary Potter, principal of Djanogly city technology college in Nottingham.

At Djanogly, staff with children get paid leave to sort out family crises. Ms Potter feels that this generous attitude has its own reward. "You get so much back from employees if you recognise that there are times when they need flexibility. When people return, the quality of their commitment is outstanding; you can't buy that."

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