Please note that this article has been created for guidance purposes only and must not be treated as a substitute for any legal or HR advice.
What is a sabbatical?
A sabbatical can be defined as an employee taking a period of time away from work – over and above normal annual leave allocations – that has been agreed with their employer. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘career break’; however, sabbaticals are normally taken for a shorter period of time and the employee will usually return to the same job.
Sabbaticals are usually taken as a single period of extended leave, but can also take the form of short, frequent periods of absence or regular time off – this may happen, for example, where an employee goes to work with or supports another organisation.
Employers have overall responsibility for managing requests for sabbaticals from staff – school leaders, including governors, will be heavily involved in the process. This article breaks down everything school leaders need to know about employees’ rights to sabbaticals, alongside how to manage requests.
The right to take a sabbatical
Employees do not have a statutory right to take sabbatical leave and employers are not legally obliged to offer them. It is, therefore, at the discretion of individual schools as to whether they allow staff to take sabbaticals.
As there are no laws that cover sabbaticals, the terms and conditions of the leave are agreed between the employer and employee.
The DfE’s stance on sabbaticals
As part of its ‘Strengthening Qualified Teacher Status and improving career progression for teachers’ consultation response, released in May 2018, the DfE committed to setting up a work-related sabbaticals pilot for teachers who had been in the profession for at least 10 years. The pilot was set to begin in September 2019; however, no further details were released about it following the initial announcement.
Benefits of allowing sabbaticals to be taken
Introducing a policy that allows sabbaticals to be taken by members of staff can bring benefits to both the school and the employee that takes the leave.
Having a sabbatical may allow a member of staff to take an opportunity they would not otherwise have, e.g. to pursue a HE course, undertake voluntary work or travel. These opportunities can offer employees a chance to build on their skills, knowledge and experience – all of which can be put back into the school when they return to work.
Benefits for the school can include:
- Retention – sabbaticals can increase staff retention by allowing staff members to try something different with the security of knowing they can return to the school. The opportunity to take a sabbatical may also enable the school to retain valuable staff members that might otherwise have left.
- Experience and skills – a staff member that goes on sabbatical will likely return to work with broader experience and skills that they utilise in their role with the school.
- Motivation – a staff member that has taken a sabbatical is likely to return to the school with more motivation and an increased sense of loyalty and commitment to the school.
- Recruitment – if the school has a policy that grants sabbaticals, this may make it a more attractive place to work for potential applicants.
If your school decides that it will allow staff to take sabbaticals, then you need to develop a clear policy which covers areas such as:
- How to apply
- How requests will be considered
- Notice periods
- The length of time off allowed – there are no statutory requirements surrounding this, so it will be up to your school to decide what is appropriate
- How a sabbatical will affect terms of employment
- Contractual benefits while on sabbatical
- Arrangements during the period of sabbatical leave
- Return to work arrangements
Once this policy has been developed, you should make sure staff are aware of it and tell them that it should be their first port of call before they apply for a sabbatical.
Determining eligibility criteria
There is no specific legislation to follow when setting eligibility criteria. When setting your school’s eligibility criteria, make sure the following points are considered:
- Conditions relevant to eligibility – you need to decide on any conditions that are relevant to eligibility. Conditions you can consider may include sabbaticals only being open to staff members in certain roles, staff members needing to have a minimum number of years’ continuous service to be eligible, and employees needing to have met certain performance standards to be eligible. Bear in mind that under the Equality Act 2010, employers need to be able to justify any length of service criterion applied in respect of an employee benefit that is longer than five years.
- Part-time employees – part-time staff members must not be treated any less favourably. You must ensure that part-time staff are afforded the same benefits as equivalent full-time staff (e.g. any length of service requirement must be the same).
- Equality and discrimination – when setting your criteria, take care to not impose any conditions that could inadvertently discriminate against a particular characteristic, e.g. age – this could lead to a breach of the Equality Act 2010 and would be unlawful unless you could provide an objective justification for applying such a condition.
The eligibility criteria that you decide upon need to be included in your sabbatical policy.
You should decide on an application process that works best for your school.
Generally, requests should be made in writing using a standard application form that has been developed by the employer. Your school’s form should gather the following information at a minimum:
- The staff member’s name and role within the school
- The proposed objectives for the sabbatical
- The proposed duration of the sabbatical leave
- The perceived benefits for the school and the member of staff
Make sure staff are aware of who they need to submit their application to. This will depend on your school’s structure, but generally, requests from staff will be submitted to the headteacher and requests from the headteacher will be submitted to the governing board.
Your sabbatical policy should also inform staff of when applications should be submitted, e.g. before the end of the Summer term prior to the academic year in which the requested sabbatical would start.
Deciding whether to approve or refuse an application
Your school’s sabbatical policy should detail how all applications will be considered and by who.
Applications should be considered by the relevant school leaders, e.g. the headteacher and governors, on a case-by-case basis. While it is important for the member of staff to meet the eligibility criteria, you will also need to take a wide range of other relevant issues into account, including the following:
- Workload implications for other staff members
- Ability to cover the role
- Financial implications
- Impact on the quality and level of education delivery
- Potential benefits to both the member of staff and the school
Make it clear in your policy that granting a sabbatical request will be dependent on the school’s operational requirements at the time and a range of other factors, and that no request can be guaranteed even where the employee meets all the eligibility criteria.
You need to consider whether there are any reasons for which a sabbatical will be refused, for example:
- The member of staff does not meet the eligibility criteria
- The member of staff has poor performance or attendance
- The school is unable to cover the role of the staff member
- The member of staff is subject to disciplinary proceedings
- The requested length of the sabbatical is too long
Following the consideration of an application, you will need to decide whether to grant or refuse a request. The individuals or groups that will make the final decision on an application will depend on your school type. It may be that the headteacher needs to make a recommendation to the governing board who would make the final decision, or the governing board may need to get advice from the LA or trust board. Overall, it is the responsibility of the school’s employer to grant or refuse requests.
If a request is approved, the member of staff should be informed, and an agreement should be made in writing.
If a request is refused, the staff member should be notified of the reasons for refusal as soon as possible. If the request as it stands cannot be accommodated (e.g. because it is for too long), but an alternative arrangement can be proposed, this should also be communicated to the staff member. All members of staff should have the opportunity to challenge any decision to refuse a request.
A copy of any application for a sabbatical, whether successful or unsuccessful, should be placed on the employee’s personnel file.
Arrangements during a sabbatical
Most employers that grant sabbaticals attach conditions in terms of what happens during the leave. These conditions could include the following:
- The sabbatical must be for no more than a defined period – sabbaticals usually last for between four weeks and a year
- The sabbatical may only be taken in one block
- The member of staff must keep in touch with their line manager during the sabbatical
- The member of staff may not work for another employer without consent from the school
- The member of staff must give a minimum period of notice prior to the proposed return date, if this has not already been agreed
Your sabbatical policy needs to detail any arrangements that will be applicable while a member of staff is on a sabbatical, including arrangements related to pay, benefits and the status of their job.
Unless the employee’s contract states a right to payment, you do not need to pay them while they are on sabbatical leave; however, whether you choose to pay the staff member is at your discretion. Payment can be considered appropriate, for example, where the activities the employee will undertake during their leave will directly benefit the school. There will be an implied right for the employee to be paid if the sabbatical is for the purpose of a secondment to another organisation – you would need to discuss this with the other employer.
If pay is maintained, you have the right to set down conditions that the member of staff must meet.
If pay is not maintained, a staff member’s contract of employment would normally be regarded as suspended – so no contractual benefits would be afforded either. If pay is maintained, the contract of employment would still be in force – in these cases, you need to clearly define what contractual benefits would continue during the sabbatical, e.g. pension and annual leave.
Returning to work
You must decide which of the following options will apply when an employee returns from sabbatical leave:
- The member of staff will be reinstated to the same role as before their leave.
- The member of staff will be offered a job of equivalent status and on terms no less favourable than those that would be applied, had the employee not taken the sabbatical.
- That re-employment in the same job or an equivalent cannot be guaranteed, but that the school will do its best to offer the member of staff a suitable position that will make appropriate use of their skills and experience, as and when a vacancy arises.
Return to work arrangements must be agreed with the member of staff. Make sure any guarantee of re-employment is clearly communicated to avoid any disagreement at a later date.
You should also discuss with the member of staff how they will return to work – you may want to organise a re-induction meeting with them to ensure they are still able to effectively fulfil their role. Any training needs should also be discussed and agreed with the member of staff – this may be more relevant where an employee has taken a longer sabbatical.
You must also consider how you would manage cases of employees who fail to return to work. Failure to return could, for example, be considered as unauthorised absence that is then dealt with in line with the school’s disciplinary policy.
Acas (2016) ‘Taking a career break from work’ <https://archive.acas.org.uk/article/5754/Taking-a-career-break-from-work> [Accessed: 13 February 2020]
Carlisle and Hampton Hill Federation (2018) ‘Sabbatical Policy’
The Career Break Site (2016) ‘Sabbaticals’ <https://www.thecareerbreaksite.com/sabbaticals> [Accessed: 13 February 2020]
CIPD (2010) ‘Sabbaticals’ <https://www.hr-inform.co.uk/employment_law/sabbaticals> [Accessed: 13 February 2020]
DfE (2018) ‘Strengthening Qualified Teacher Status and improving career progression for teachers’, p.11