Flexible working

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Main text: Caroline Roberts Illustration: Simon Pemberton. Additional research: Sarah Jenkins Next week: Private tuition

Ever dreamed of reducing your working week? Perhaps you'd like to spend more time with your own kids, gain a new qualification, finally release that novel that's been inside you all these years, or start winding down to retirement. You're not alone. According to a survey by the recruitment consultancy Flexecutive, 40 per cent of full-time teachers would like to reduce their hours. But even if you can afford the drop in salary, it's not always an easy option. Although many employers now look more favourably upon flexible working, schools have generally been slower to embrace the concept. So how can you overcome the obstacles and convince your head it's a good idea?

Your rights

Legislation introduced in April 2003 may give you a bit more bargaining power. The flexible working regulations state that if you have a child under six or a disabled child under 18, your employer is legally obliged to give serious consideration to your request for arrangements such as home-working, reduced hours, or the opportunity to job-share.

Your boss is required to meet with you within 28 days to discuss the request and make a decision within 14 days of the meeting. You then have a further two weeks to lodge an appeal if refused. If your employer turns down your request, they must detail the exact grounds for doing so. Vague explanations, such as it being detrimental to pupils' education, aren't good enough and refusals have been successfully challenged by the teaching unions. However, the regulations aren't much help if your children are older or you want flexible employment for other reasons.

Part-timers are entitled to pro rata sickness and maternity benefits, and you will receive incremental points on the pay spine, provided you have worked for at least 26 weeks of the previous year. This also applies to post-threshold increments and those on the leadership pay scale.

Why do some heads resist?

Ken Savage, director of Flexecutive, says many of their reservations are understandable. Heads are often concerned that employing part-time staff and job-sharers will disrupt pupils' learning.

Secondary heads cite timetabling difficulties and the increased likelihood of classes being split between two teachers, a particular worry when pupils are being prepared for exams. Primary heads often feel it is better for pupils to have a single teacher, and are anxious that parents might object.

Many heads are also concerned about the extra cost of having to pay for overlap time so the job-sharers can liaise effectively. They may fear that saying yes to one member of staff will open the floodgates and make other requests harder to refuse. Many lack experience in managing the larger and more diverse workforce they will be left with.

So what are the benefits?

Companies that adopt flexible employment practices often find they increase productivity. This also appears to be the case in education.

The Flexecutive study shows that 60 per cent of those managing part-time teachers rate them as outperforming their full-time colleagues. A reduction in hours often means less stress and fewer days lost through sickness. And many part-timers say that having more time to prepare work and feeling fresher in the classroom improves their teaching. Flexible working is also a way of retaining experienced staff and encouraging back into the profession teachers who have left to have families.

Phyl Shaw took over as head of Fairfields primary school in Basingstoke, Hampshire, six years ago when the school was in special measures. This, along with the fact that accommodation in the area is expensive, made it hard to attract good staff. The school's willingness to consider part-timers allowed her to get round this problem "and helped us to evolve into a successful school". She also believes that having more staff means a wider range of interests and strengths, which enriches the school. Parents have raised no concerns. "If you have a good relationship with parents and keep them well informed of what's going on, they will trust your judgment," she says.

Negotiating your contract

In 2001, the National Union of Teachers conducted a survey of members' experiences of flexible working. The title of the report is telling:

"There's no such thing as a part-time teacher". It seems that the conscientious nature of teachers and their willingness to put pupils first means that it's easy to allow a part-time job to turn into a full-time workload. Phyl Shaw says heads need to be careful about part-time staff doing too much. "If I feel someone needs to attend a meeting or Inset outside their normal work times, I pay them for it. But if they start coming into school of their own accord on days off, I ask them why they are there and try to discourage it."

Problems often arise because many part-time contracts state little more than the proportion of the working year the teacher is paid for, such as 0.4 or 0.6. However, they might be expected to attend all meetings and parents' evenings, something that will not be reflected in their salary.

The Department for Education and Skills advises that contracts should state the exact teaching and non-teaching duties to be undertaken, details that should be agreed at the outset. NUT guidelines recommend that contracts should cover the days to be worked, teaching and non-contact time, and other activities such as meetings, parents' evenings and training.

Both sides need to be flexible. Timetabling constraints, especially in secondary schools, may mean odd hours or split days, something that can be especially problematic for teachers who need to arrange childcare.

Employees and senior management should work together to come up with the best fit for both parties.

Out of sight, out of mind?

Part-timers can feel detached from school life. Eighty-one per cent of respondents in the Flexecutive survey say they sometimes feel left out of important decisions. Even though you may be kept up to date about what's gone on in meetings, it's not the same as being part of the discussion and the decision-making process.

If you are not in school every day, you need to make an extra effort to keep abreast of things and ensure there are effective channels of communication so you don't miss out on important information. This is equally important for keeping up with staff news. One teacher told the survey she was not aware a colleague had been bereaved as she was not in school on the day it was announced to staff, something which could have resulted in her making an upsetting faux pas.

Career suicide?

Part-time working can have a negative impact on career progression. There are obviously fewer chances to move jobs, so you may miss out on the professional development that comes with working in different environments.

However, government regulations state that you must be given the same access to training as full-time workers.

Teachers further up the career ladder often assume that a move to part-time working will mean sacrificing management responsibilities. But this isn't always the case. Sarah Gent has worked three days a week as a deputy head at Brentside high school in west London since the birth of her first child two years ago. She feels that honesty is the best policy when broaching the subject of reduced hours. "I knew that if I continued to work as a full-time deputy I wouldn't be doing my best for my family or for the school, but I still felt I had a lot to offer." The arrangement works well as it's relatively easy to divide up the responsibilities between the senior management team.

Like many part-timers, she feels that the reduction in hours allows her to work more efficiently and be more productive. "Having the opportunity to step back from school helps me come up with more creative solutions to problems. In the past I'd stay late mulling something over and not getting very far, but now I often find the answer pops into my head when I'm at home bathing my daughter." She does admit, however, that holding a senior management position part-time means you have to be flexible and willing to put in extra hours when necessary. "To some extent, I'm 'on call' on my days off as the school knows they can contact me by email or mobile in an emergency."

Other options

Job-sharing can overcome some of the obstacles. For example, as a partnership you can apply for full-time posts, including those with management responsibilities. It can be more flexible, too, as partners can swap the occasional day to accommodate outside commitments. And, from the school's point of view, timetabling is much less problematic. However, there are drawbacks: most job-shares are limited to two or three days a week in order to share the workload as fairly as possible, and planning is often more time-consuming as you need to liaise closely.

Finding the right partner can also take time and effort. To ease the process, Flexecutive has set up a database for suitable matches (see resources). Personality is obviously a factor. "Being a team player helps, but virtually anyone is capable of forming a successful partnership. The most important thing is self-knowledge," says Ken Savage. "You need to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. If you recognise that you have a competitive or controlling streak, then you are more able to keep it in check."

To make a job-share work, both partners need to be good communicators, organised, and efficient at record-keeping. Although they should share the same core skills, and working methods should be compatible, it's often helpful if they have different strengths and areas of expertise.

Phyl Shaw of Fairfields primary points out that prospective job-sharers also need to consider how their approaches in the classroom may differ.

"You can have two teachers who are equally good at classroom management, but one may be much firmer than the other. Young children, in particular, have difficulty adapting to different personalities and can find this very confusing.

"It's a good idea to spend some time observing or 'team teaching' your would-be sharer's lessons to get a feel for their style. It's also vital that life and career plans don't conflict. Prospective partners should discuss how they want their careers to progress over the next five years."

Two heads are better than one

Laura Sparkes and John Wilks have definitely hit on the right formula.

They've been joint heads of English at St Paul's Way community school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets for the past 17 years, having initially chosen job-sharing to spend more time with their young families.

"It helped a lot that we were good friends beforehand, so we already knew that we shared the same general attitudes towards most aspects of education. Of course we've occasionally disagreed over an issue, but because making the job-share work is important for both of us, we've always been able to compromise," says Mr Wilks. Managing the department as a partnership has brought advantages; for instance, they have been able to look at things from different perspectives and bounce ideas off one another. "Dividing the teaching is probably the most challenging aspect, particularly with split classes. But it's also exciting as you have to carry on with something the other person has started so are constantly exposed to new ways of doing things."

As his children have got older, Mr Wilks has also found it easy to add to his working week by developing interests in other areas at school, such as mentoring NQTs and delivering Inset. "I've had more variety in my career, which helps keep you fresh and enthusiastic," he says.

Protecting your pension

Membership of the Teachers' Pension Scheme is not automatic for part-timers so, if you cut your hours, you must elect to be included by filling in Form 261, available from your school or the TPS. Working part-time will obviously reduce your pension as only the days you work will count towards your benefits.

However, you can top it up by buying in past added years, which involves paying your own share, plus the contribution that would have been made by your employer. You can do it as a lump sum or by paying a percentage from your salary. The cost will depend on your age and salary. The TPS website includes a ready reckoner to help you calculate how much it will cost. You can also make additional voluntary contributions (AVCs) through a scheme for teachers from the Prudential.


* NUT guidance for part-time teachers can be found at www.teachers.org.uk.

The union is currently conducting another survey and is keen to hear from teachers who are already working part-time or job-sharing.

* www.flexecutive.co.ukeducation has a wealth of information on flexible working and a database to match potential job-sharers.

* Information on the Teachers' Pensions Scheme can be found at www.teacherspensions.co.uk.

Did you know?

* Regulations introduced in 2003 give some employees the right to reduce their hours, work at home or job-share

* Sixty per cent of education managers questioned in a survey, rated part-time teachers as outperforming their full-time colleagues

* Not all heads are in favour of flexible working. Some say it results in timetabling mayhem and disrupts learning

* Government regulations say part-timers must have the same access to training as full-time workers

* Job-sharers can apply for full-time posts as a partnership, including those with management responsibilities

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