Work to the rhythm of life

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Flexi-time arrangements can be music to the ears of many college staff. Neil Merrick reports.

Four years ago, Ruth Chapman wondered if she might be forced to give up teaching at Lincoln college. After 11 years as a full-time teacher of business studies, she found it increasingly difficult to juggle her work with the pressure of looking after her elderly mother.

Her two days off each weekend were not enough to prepare lessons, mark homework and attend to her mother's needs. So she asked the college if she could work four days a week instead of five.

Last term, as her mother became more demanding, the college agreed to a further reduction in hours, so she now works Monday to Wednesday. While her salary was cut, Ms Chapman believes the extra time she can now spend with her mother is more valuable. She is also no longer as tired when she returns to work on Monday.

"It has been marvellous for me and my family," she says. "As a full-time teacher, I felt that one or the other was going to suffer."

Now Ms Chapman looks forward to Wednesday in the same way that most people long for Friday afternoons. "I didn't want to give up," she adds. "I still want to teach. This way I can do both."

Ms Chapman is one of about 50 staff at Lincoln who have taken voluntary reductions in working hours under a new regime which has dramaticaly cut staff turnover and absenteeism through illness. Last year, new regulations were introduced requiring all employers to consider requests from parents of children under six to work flexibly.

But with large numbers of lecturers over 40, they are more likely to find themselves in a similar position to Ms Chapman with responsibility for the care of elders, which is not covered by the regulations but is often a far more pressing issue than childcare.

Lincoln is the first FE college to gain the work-life balance standard, awarded by Investors in People UK to employers who recognise that staff have a life outside work and offer benefits such as flexible working.

Ben Browne, the director of personnel at the college, says Lincoln became a "family friendly employer" about seven years ago and was already way ahead of the government regulations.

Voluntary reductions in hours are by far the most popular option among lecturers, he says, partly because they cannot work flexi-time in the same way as managers and non-teaching staff.

The main benefit to the college is that experienced teachers do not give up work completely.

"We are not just nice or altruistic people - we want to retain a scarce resource," he says.

Liz Came, a teacher-trainer, has been taking Fridays off since last March, and when she reaches 60 in April will start working two-and-a-half days a week. She has no wish to retire, but wants time for hobbies such as gardening and playing classical guitar.

"Working fewer hours has made me more aware of the satisfaction of the job," she says.

All changes are tested over a trial period to see if both sides can cope.

About five staff have asked to return to their old timetables. Teachers can also work from home, or from another location outside the college, for up to four hours a week.

Under the flexi-time arrangements, non-teaching staff start work between 8am and 10.45am and finish between 3.45pm and 6.30pm. They can also accrue hours, allowing them to take one day off each month.

Sarah Adams, personal assistant to college principal John Allen, says flexi-time is a major advantage to women with young children. Compared with friends who work in private companies, she is also better paid and has more annual holiday.

When she began working at Lincoln 14 years ago, few people had heard of flexible working.

"The college did not even have a personnel policy then," she says. "There was nothing like this."

Lincoln employs 200 teachers and nearly 300 non-teaching staff. Other benefits include childcare vouchers, career breaks and counselling. Staff also visit an occupational health centre to have their lifestyle assessed.

Senior personnel officer Jacqui Hutchinson arrived at the college four years ago after working for a local NHS trust.

"I thought things would be much the same here as at the trust, but the terms and conditions at Lincoln college are far better," she says.

Staff turnover at Lincoln is just above 7 per cent, compared with a national average in FE of 15.6 per cent. Flexible working also seems to be helping to create a healthier workforce. Last year absenteeism at the college was 3.3 per cent, compared with a nationwide average in the public sector of 4.7 per cent.

Ben Browne, who commutes 40 miles from Nottingham, works flexibly and normally arrives at about 9.30am so that he can see his young daughter before he leaves for work.

"It's imperative for education to catch up with other sectors," he says.

"Colleges are keen to hear about anything they can do to attract and retain employees."

Why a better sense of balance is good for the sector

1 A college is often one of the largest local employers and must offer similar incentives and benefits to other industries.

2 Flexible working could retain a skilled employee and reduce the need to recruit new staff.

3 Employees with fewer pressures outside work are less likely to be ill and generally perform better when they are in work.

4 Colleges already rely on large numbers of part-time teachers. Requests by full-time staff to work fewer days per week should not cause too many timetabling difficulties.

5 Although teachers must be on-site to take classes, they are accustomed to preparing lessons and marking work at home. Why not let them work at home during the the college's time as well as their own?

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