The number of school staff that would like the opportunity to work flexibly is increasing, reflecting a national trend across all professions. The percentage of teachers working part-time is significantly lower than the rest of the general workforce (approximately 22 percent). The lack of flexible working opportunities raises problems for equality in the teaching workforce.
Flexible working opportunities can be a factor in schools attracting and retaining high-quality teachers, and the government recognises this. In February 2017, the DfE released a ‘Flexible working in schools’ guidance document, which aims to help teachers who are considering working flexibly make informed decisions, and to help school leaders consider how best to encourage, support, and enable flexible working in their schools.
This article outlines what is meant by flexible working, its benefits, and how school leaders can implement flexible working opportunities whilst remaining compliant with government guidance and legislation.
What is flexible working?
Simply put, flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, this includes the following:
- Part-time working – usually involves working less than full-time hours and/or working fewer days
- Job sharing – this is where two or more people share one job and split the hours between themselves
- Compressed hours – this involves working full-time hours but over fewer days (this can increase workload)
- Staggered hours – this is where you have a different start, finish and break times from other workers (can be useful for teachers with caring/childcare responsibilities)
- Working from home – regular home-working may not be practical for a lot of teachers but some schools do offer ad-hoc home-working opportunities
Benefits of flexible working
Flexible working allows employees a better work-life balance, and can have a positive impact on their overall wellbeing.
Benefits of flexible working specific to schools include the following:
- Members of staff on maternity leave may return to work more quickly as full-time working can be difficult alongside caring commitments.
- Effective job sharing can offer pupils the opportunity to learn from two experienced teachers.
- With regard to job sharing, schools can attain a body of staff with a more diverse range of skills and experience.
- Equality of opportunity can be achieved, such as reasonable adjustment for members of staff who have disabilities.
- Members of staff who may have otherwise left teaching may be retained.
- Teachers who have left the profession may be attracted back to the workforce if a flexible position is on offer – the National College for Teaching and Leadership has a list of former teachers looking to return to the workforce, which schools can use to actively seek out potential employees.
Applying for flexible working
Members of staff can apply for flexible working if they have been continuously working for the same school in the 26 weeks prior to making an application.
There is no statutory process for making a flexible working request, so it is advised that schools have a Flexible Working Policy which outlines the procedures that should be followed when making a request.
Normally, applications will be made to the headteacher and the chair of the governing body. If a secondary school teacher is making a request, it is considered good practice to send the application to your head of department as well.
Applications should be made in writing (letter or email), including information of:
- The date the request is being made.
- The change to working conditions that is being requested, e.g. part-time work or job sharing.
- The preferred date for the changes to take effect.
- Any previous flexible working applications that have been made – only one application per 12 months can be made.
- Any relation the request has to the Equality Act 2010, for example, as a reasonable adjustment for a disabled employee.
In practice, requests are more likely to be accommodated if the teacher making the application is willing to be flexible about the arrangement, e.g. if an employee only wants to work three days a week but does not mind which days.
If an employee wishes to withdraw their application they should inform the headteacher in writing. Applications can also be considered as withdrawn if the employee misses two meetings to discuss an application without good reason.
Accepting a request
Headteachers and governing bodies must deal with flexible working requests in a ‘reasonable manner’, this includes:
- Evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of the request, considering how the arrangement will affect the school.
- Holding a meeting to discuss the request with the applicant.
- Offering an appeal process if the application is requested.
Requests should usually be accepted or rejected within three months – unless another timescale is agreed with the applicant.
If a request is accepted, the headteacher or governing body should write to the employee with a statement of the agreed changes, and a start date for the new arrangements. The employee’s contract should also be amended to reflect their flexible working arrangement. These processes should be completed no later than 28 days after the request is approved.
Rejecting a request
Employers can only refuse a flexible working request if they have a good business reason for doing so. To do this, the benefits for the employee and the school will need to be weighed up against any adverse impacts.
Reasonable grounds for rejecting a request include the following:
- The burden of additional costs
- The inability to organise work amongst existing staff
- If there is a planned structural change to the school
- If the arrangement would have a detrimental effect of the performance of the member of staff or pupils
- If the school is unable to recruit additional staff to fill the staffing gap
Though the right to appeal is not statutory, it should be offered to members of staff as part of handling their request in a ‘reasonable manner’. Members of staff should follow their school’s procedure for making an appeal.
Members of staff can complain to an employment tribunal if their employer:
- Did not handle their request in a ‘reasonable manner’.
- Wrongly treated their application as withdrawn.
- Dismissed or treated them poorly due to their request.
- Rejected their application based on incorrect facts.
Any complaints that staff wish to lodge with a tribunal should be made within three months of the initial decision to reject the request. It is also important to note that a complaint cannot be lodged with a tribunal just because a flexible working request has been rejected.
Impact of flexible working on pay
It is not possible to apply a blanket answer to how flexible working arrangements, which result in part-time working, will affect pay. This is partly because academies are free to devise their own terms and conditions for how pay is calculated; however, many academies choose to follow the national terms and conditions set out in the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD).
Under the STPCD, part-time members of staff must be paid a percentage of the appropriate full-time equivalent salary – this is called the pro-rata principle.
While a full-time teacher must be available to perform their duties for 1265 hours in the academic year, a part-time teacher is required to perform their duties for the proportion of those hours as agreed in their contract. Part-time teachers are only required to carry out their duties on their contracted working days, and should not be expected to work on non-pupil days, e.g. inset days.
If a teacher worked part-time before 1 January 2007 it will only be recognised for pension purposes if they elected to have the work treated as pensionable. Any part-time working arrangements undertaken after 1 January 2007 are automatically pensionable in the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, unless the scheme is opted out of.
The misconceptions that surround flexible working can prevent schools from implementing it and reaping the potential benefits.
The most common misconceptions include:
Job sharing or part-time working is impossible in schools
Flexible working can work in schools, and can greatly benefit the wellbeing of staff; however, in order to work well there needs to be clear communication and expectations.
A member of staff working flexibly needs to know what is expected of them, and these expectations should be written into any agreement, e.g. if they need to attend meetings and parents’ evenings. These expectations also need to be communicated to colleagues who work closely with the member of staff so that there is no confusion.
Formal and informal conversations should be utilised by headteachers or department heads to ensure the member of staff working flexibly receives the same level of information as other members of staff.
Communication is also vital to effective job sharing – job share partners need to make their roles and responsibilities clear to one another. It is advised that job share partners meet each week to handover information and discuss any issues.
Flexible working is too expensive
Some reports from schools have revealed that giving staff flexible working opportunities costs less than managing the cost of absence, and loss of staff who feel they cannot balance their work and home life.
Flexible working has a negative impact on pupils
The vast majority of teachers who work under a flexible arrangement are just as committed to their pupils as their full-time counterparts. In fact, some schools believe that effective flexible working can actually lead to more effective performance and pupil outcomes.
Flexible working is not appropriate for leadership roles
A school is required to have a headteacher at all times under the Education Act 2002; however, this requirement can be met through a job share arrangement. Any flexible working arrangements relating to the headteacher should be explained to staff and parents, and supported by the governing body. Headteachers operating as job share partners should make sure that they clarify their roles amongst themselves to minimise confusion.
There is no legal requirement for a school to have a deputy or assistant headteacher in school at all times, therefore staff in these roles can also apply for flexible working. The impact on workload should be considered if deputy or assistant headteachers work fewer hours but retain the same responsibilities. Discussions with the headteacher should consider reducing teaching or other responsibilities the deputy or assistant headteacher may have to ensure that they are not working fewer hours, and consequently being paid less, but still retaining the same workload.
In line with an increasing trend across public sector employers, schools could consider advertising all their vacancies as flexible working opportunities. Schools that have adopted this approach have found that they had a bigger pool of candidates to choose from, and that some exceptional candidates applied for the post that would have ignored it if it was advertised as full-time only.
DfE (2017) ‘Flexible working in schools’
GOV.UK (2017) ‘After the application’, <https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/after-the-application> [Accessed: 1 March 2017]
GOV.UK (2017) ‘Appeals’, <https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/appeals> [Accessed: 1 March 2017]
GOV.UK (2017) ‘Applying for flexible working’, <https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/applying-for-flexible-working> [Accessed: 1 March 2017]