Flexibility with working mothers

16th May 2008 at 01:00
A new mother asked me this week whether she could go part time now that her baby had arrived
A new mother asked me this week whether she could go part time now that her baby had arrived. She felt that being a head of department was too big a load. She wondered if a job share might be the answer. This is simply two part-time employees sharing responsibilities agreed by the governors in consultation with the head.

The regulations allow anyone with parental responsibilities for a child under six, whether or not they are the actual parent, to ask in writing for a change of contract, including going part time. The school must give serious consideration to the mother's request.

It is the right to request - not a right to - flexible working. The school is not obliged to turn itself upside down to meet the request. If the school cannot, for example, ensure continuity of service or a proper level of service, or can prove that it cannot recruit staff to fill the vacancy that the flexible working might create, it can refuse the request. However, this must be factually based. For example, it is not acceptable simply to believe that two part timers cannot do the work of one full timer. The school will have to have factual grounds for that assertion, and any other contention, in the circumstances of the school. Similarly, schools will need reasonable grounds for believing that there may be a problem in recruiting a part-time member of staff to job share or fill the gap. Much will depend on the nature of the post and its responsibilities. In the long run, the decisive factor may not be the law but the job market.

If a request is refused, and the employee makes a complaint to an employment tribunal, the tribunal cannot question the reasonableness of the employer's decision. It can be asked to consider whether the statutory procedure was correctly followed, whether an acceptable reason was given for refusing the request, or whether the facts relied on by the employer in coming to the decision were correct. If not satisfied, it could oblige the school to pay compensation to the mother. Since the regulations were designed to make working life better for women it would be preferable for every effort to be made to find a solution, short of going to law.

Chris Lowe, Former headteacher and trade union legal consultant. Chief editor of Quick Guide Publications.

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