Should your school offer flexible working?

In July Conservative MP Helen Whately proposed a Private Members Bill to the UK House of Commons which would make flexible working ‘the default position for employers’. She argued that offering flexible working would ‘help close the gender pay gap, assist parents to share childcare, and help businesses keep staff’.

The third of these goals is perhaps especially important to schools who are seeing retention rates fall – the graph below shows that only 67% of new teachers now last 5 years in English schools.

NQT retention rates in English schools – link

Flexible working: some implications to consider

Many schools already offer flexible working options – in the form of part-time and supply work. The 2018 teacher census shows for English state schools shows that 26% of all teachers (but only 5% of head teachers) are working part time.

And teacher workload is certainly a major and growing problem that could be addressed by flexible working. In 2018, the international TALIS (The OECD Teaching and Learning International) survey found lower secondary teachers in England spent on average 46.9 hours a week working, up from 45.9 hours five years ago and compared to an average across all OECD countries of 38.8. Primary teachers worked even longer- 52.1 hours each week.

There are some strong arguments against seeing flexible working as the only solution to workload. Does offering flexible work address the symptoms of this without looking at the causes? As one returning parent contemplating part-term work asked online, ‘Will I end up doing just as much as before, but only getting 3 days’ pay?’

Beyond a certain amount of flexible working, there’s also a need for greater numbers of flexible workers. As Teacher Tapp’s Laura McInerney points out in this article in Schools Week, if 40% of teachers chose to reduce their hours, you’d need 40,000 more teachers to fill the resulting gaps. School timetables mean that someone has to be teaching every day (although it’s interesting that far many more school teachers work flexibly than head teachers, who don’t have to be in school all the time).

There’s also one final argument that isn’t always addressed in teaching – does flexible working have to mean part-time work? Teaching is perhaps one of the least flexible professions in other ways – with fixed holidays and hours of work. Could something as simple as offering ‘duvet days’, or allowing teachers to book their holidays in term time make an equal difference?

So, what should your school do?

1. Research the demand among teachers and staff

The first thing is to research the demand for flexible working in your school. Do you have teachers who would like to work flexibly and might leave teaching if they weren’t able to access it? If you advertise a job as ‘flexible’ do you get more and better applications? Would teachers see the opportunity to book time off in term time as positive?

2. Explore different options

You can then explore ways to deliver this type of working. Don’t limit yourself to fixed locations and job roles – could a job be shared across a school network or multi-academy trust? Could a teacher take on a part-time role training all the new teachers across your school for example? Education Secretary Damien Hinds suggested an online flexible working ‘matchmaking’ service as a potential solution – it will be interesting to see how and if this develops.

3. Share learnings and success stories with other schools

And then, once you have succeeded in delivering flexible working, make sure you share the success stories. Stories such as this co-headship in Surrey help to break down barriers, give schools the confidence to find out the true level of flexible working they can offer – and might just help solve the teacher recruitment crisis.

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About the author

Simon HepburnSimon Hepburn spent 10 years working in marketing in industry and consultancy. This included managing a £1.5m advertising budget for Reed, advising Vodafone on improving its image as an employer, and developing a new practice in one of the UK's leading reputation management consultancies. He then retrained as a teacher at the Institute of Education, London and spent 12 years working as a teacher and Head of Department in state and private schools. He now combines part-time teaching with running Marketing Advice for Schools, a network of over 1250 school marketers, and training and consulting with schools. He is the author of two books on school marketing and is writing a third on recruitment marketing for schools.

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