Importance of flexible working in schools

What is Flexible Working?

Flexible working is a type of working arrangement which gives a degree of flexibility on how long, where, when and at what times employees work.

All employers, including schools, have a legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their staff. Since this will include minimising the risk of stress-related illness, a clear and flexible working policy can form an important part of this duty.

Essentially, flexible working is any arrangement that allows employees to vary the amount, timing or location of their work. In a school, some forms of flexible working are more suitable for particular roles than others, and careful consideration needs to be given to the type of flexible working that is envisaged.

What changes have been made to flexible working?

From 6th April 2024, any employee has the right to make a statutory flexible working request from the first day of their employment (although this does not cover the recruitment period) and an employee can make two requests under the statutory regime in any 12-month period.

Does flexible working apply to schools and what are the benefits?

Yes it does. Flexible working can bring a number of advantages to a school. It can be a useful way of retaining experienced staff who might otherwise decide to leave the profession for other employment where hours were not so rigid. In addition, with recruitment being such a perennial problem, the introduction of a flexible working element can make a job seem much more attractive, especially since flexible working is a fairly common practice elsewhere.

Advocates of flexible working point out how it can promote wellbeing and improve work-life balance.

Many staff, or potential staff, have caring responsibilities. They might have young children, or elderly or sick relatives, and a flexible day can be a major attraction with recruitment, or indeed retention.

Some staff might be returning from a career break and a gradual introduction to full-time working might be beneficial. Others might be approaching retirement and will appreciate a gradual run down.

Some examples of flexible working

The most common type of flexible working in schools is part-time working. Usually, this is due to the needs of the school either as a result of financial constraints, a particular subject area does not warrant having a full-time teacher or staff returning from maternity leave. Another form is when two or more people split the same job between them, with each working part-time. This is commonly known as Job Share.

Sometimes people who are approaching the end of their career choose to reduce their working hours, and possibly their responsibilities, in order to transition from full-time employment to full-time retirement.
Other flexible arrangements can include varied hours, where an employee has different start and finishing times. This can be particularly useful for a parent with a young child at another school who needs to be collected at a certain time.

Yet another alternative is where hours are compressed, allowing the employee to still work full-time, but over fewer days. Annualised hours are another possibility, when working hours are spread across the year and may include some periods of school closure. These can be adjusted to suit the school and the employee, but they are more suitable for employees in non-teaching roles.

If an employee has worked additional hours, paid time off work can be granted, and this is known as lieu time. Similarly, if an employee carries out work off site, this will be classed as home or remote working.

The introduction of an element of home or remote working might be possible. Some schools have experimented with a nine-day fortnight, where teachers spend nine days in school and log up their non-contact time to spend one day working from home.

Here is a summary list of examples:

  • Part-time working: work is generally considered part-time when employers are contracted to work anything less than full-time hours.
  • Term-time working: a worker remains on a permanent contract but can take paid/unpaid leave during school holidays.
  • Job-sharing: a form of part-time working where two (or occasionally more) people share the responsibility for a job between them.
  • Flexitime: allows employees to choose, within certain set limits, when to begin and end work.
  • Compressed hours: compressed working weeks (or fortnights) don’t necessarily involve a reduction in total hours or any extension in individual choice over which hours are worked. The central feature is reallocation of work into fewer and longer blocks during the week.
  • Annual hours: the total number of hours to be worked over the year is fixed but there is variation over the year in the length of the working day and week. Employees may or may not have an element of choice over working patterns.
  • Working remotely on a regular basis: employees work all or part of their working week at a location remote from the employer’s workplace. This can be at home or elsewhere.
  • Hybrid working: a combination of remote/home and workplace working.
  • Career breaks: career breaks, or sabbaticals, are extended periods of leave – normally unpaid – of up to five years or more.
  • Commissioned outcomes: there are no fixed hours, but only an output target that an individual is working towards.
  • Zero-hours contracts: an individual has no guarantee of a minimum number of working hours, so they can be called upon as and when required and paid just for the hours they work. Find out more about zero-hours contracts.

How can an employee request flexible working?

There are two routes where an employee can request flexible working: a statutory or a non-statutory route. For both types the recommendation is for there to initially be an informal discussion between the requester and their line manager.

The discussion will include potential benefits, both to the employee and the school, together with options for a flexible arrangement. There must be an understanding that not all requests will be possible, and that a trial period before any permanent arrangement must be made.

Flexible working arrangements can be made by any member of the school staff, including those in leadership positions and non-classroom-based roles. Essentially the guiding factor will be to make an arrangement that meets the employee’s needs, while ensuring a consistent high-quality provision for pupils.

Under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (as amended) an employee has a right to request flexible working from the first day of employment. Two statutory requests can be made within any 12-month period.

In brief, a request must be made by the employee to their manager stating their desired working pattern and intended starting date, and if and when any previous requests have been made. Ideally, this request should be made at least three months before the intended starting date.

Any request that is made and accepted will be a permanent change to the employee’s terms and conditions, unless agreed otherwise.

A non-statutory request is often the route used to request one-off or temporary working arrangements. To make such a request the employee should follow the process set out in the appropriate policy of the school or trust.

From the employer’s point of view, all requests should be considered fairly and in a timely way, and this should be done according to due process that is based on business need. It is important that there should be no discrimination based on gender, age, race, disability or any other protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

Ultimately it will be the employer who makes the final decision, but any response must be given within two months, including the conclusion of any appeal. There should always be discussion between employer and employee, and if the request is not accepted, alternative options should be explored.

What are the negatives?

Some flexible arrangements, such as job-shares, can be costly to schools and this can give cause for concern. A counter to this is that if the arrangement is successful, experienced employees will be retained and this cost can be offset by reductions in the cost of recruitment and induction.

Another concern is that flexible working arrangements might damage pupil attainment. There is limited evidence that this might be the case and to ensure that excellence is continued it is suggested that sufficient handover time should be allowed, and continuity of support staff should be ensured. Timetabling can be another challenge.

From the employee’s point of view they need to be made aware of what flexible arrangements are available. They might be concerned that working part time might create difficulties in managing workload and should discuss this with their manager. In addition, working part time might not be a financially manageable option for some people. Employees might also have concerns that flexible working arrangements might harm their career prospects and they should discuss this with their manager or speak to someone who has successfully managed their flexible working.

And finally

The Government is currently funding a programme that focuses on embedding flexible working in schools and trusts. This includes supportive webinar training and peer support given by flexible working ambassador schools and trusts. Research has shown that a flexible role can be particularly important for those returning to teaching following a caring-related break.

With recruitment and retention being such an important issue, options for flexible working have become an increasingly viable option.