Flexible and part-time working in practice

Written by: Caroline Sharp | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

England’s schools need more teachers each year, especially in secondary schools where pupil numbers are forecast to rise by 15 per cent over the next decade. Caroline Sharp looks at how increasing part-time and flexible working opportunities could help keep teachers in the profession – and in your school...

How many teachers in your school work part-time? If it is around 22 per cent, then that is average for secondary schools in England. Now think of your staff profile – do you have many teachers in their 30s and 50s? If so, you might expect more part-time working.

But would you welcome a request for reduced hours as an opportunity to hold onto valuable teachers. Or would you see it as a complication that you could do without?

As we said in a previous Research Insights article for SecEd (2019), part-time working is less common in secondary than primary schools – and the evidence suggests that a lack of part-time work drives some teachers to leave and is a barrier to enabling some ex-teachers to return.

We have recently been researching the views and experiences of teachers and school leaders in relation to part-time and flexible working. Our report (NFER, 2019) finds that, excluding those who said they would ideally like to reduce their hours but cannot afford to work part-time, 36 per cent of secondary teachers and leaders would ideally like to work part-time compared to the 19 per cent who currently do so.

Accordingly, the report estimates that around one in six secondary school teachers would like to reduce their hours, and around one in 12 would like to reduce their hours by more than a day a week.

We think this is an over-estimate of the actual demand, because it is highly unlikely that all of these teachers would actually reduce their hours if given the opportunity. But it does suggest that there is a considerable number of teachers who would like to work part-time but are currently working full-time.

So what is preventing these teachers from reducing their working hours? Just under a third of the teachers who wanted to work fewer hours and could afford to do so, said that they had not made a formal request for part-time working because they suspected their senior leaders would not allow them to change. One in 10 said that they were concerned about the potential impact on their promotion prospects.

However, only 14 per cent reported that they have had a request for part-time working rejected. This suggests that the perception that school leaders would not support a request for part-time working is a greater deterrent than teachers’ actual experience of having a request turned down.

What are the barriers and benefits for schools?

According to the leaders we interviewed, their main concerns about part-time and flexible working were to ensure continuity for pupils and fit the available staff hours into the timetabling “jigsaw”. They were worried about communication issues and the additional costs involved in employing more teachers and paying for handover time.

On the positive side, the key benefits of enabling part-time and flexible working include: increased teacher retention, improved staff wellbeing, retaining specialist expertise and a broad curriculum offer, and – where full-time staff are underutilised – an opportunity to reduce costs.

Why proactive leadership is crucial

Our research found that proactive school leadership is a key characteristic of schools with high proportions of part-time staff.

This can include being systematic about asking for annual submissions to change working patterns well in advance of the new school year, checking these with timetables and staffing forecasts, and then negotiating further with staff – who also need to be flexible when discussing their requests.

Schools with high levels of part-time working tended to use a two-week timetable, and to schedule their part-timers first. They made up for the reduction in hours in a variety of ways, including asking part-time staff to increase their hours, using trusted supply teachers, approaching recent retirees, or sharing teachers with other schools. School leaders also ensured that there were strong communication systems in place so that part-time staff can have easy access to all the information they need.

The report adds: “School leaders attempted to ensure continuity for pupils by minimising the number of subject teachers and form tutors working with each group. Some schools had arranged for teachers to share the role of form tutor, and had increased flexibility by separating registration from pastoral sessions.”

Can leaders work part-time?

Some of our interviewees were adamant that part-time working was incompatible with a middle or senior leadership role. For example, one told us: “I make it crystal clear that if they want to go part-time, they will be stepping down from their responsibility area.”

Others said that it worked well in their schools. Several interviewees explained that leaders working part-time delegated some of their responsibilities to a less experienced member of staff, which had the added benefit of preparing these teachers to take on middle and senior leadership roles.

One school had reviewed all leadership responsibilities, asking themselves: “Why does this member of staff need to be here?” They concluded that not all senior staff had to be on site at all times and this enabled some members of the senior leadership team to work part-time.

What about other kinds of flexible working?

Our research found few examples of flexible working patterns for teachers (such as staggered or compressed hours, or allowing staff to work from home). This is despite the potential demand for it from teachers – for example, to enable them to drop off and collect their own children from school.

Teaching requires teachers to be present in the classroom and the typical school day allows few opportunities for flexibility. Our interviewees referred to other requirements for teachers to be on site, such as form tutor periods, departmental planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) sessions, whole-staff meetings and training.

It seems that enabling more flexible, as opposed to part-time, working patterns requires further consideration. However, having said that, a recent SecEd case study provides an example of how one school allocated blocks of time on the timetable to each faculty area which enabled more flexible working patterns (SecEd, 2018).

Where next?

School leaders with high proportions of teachers working part-time had typically identified the barriers and sought solutions wherever possible. This included planning and negotiating teachers’ working patterns to suit both the needs of individuals and the needs of the school.

They also strengthened their communication systems and found alternatives to traditional ways of managing non-teaching responsibilities including PPA and pastoral care.

Given the growing teacher supply challenge and the fact that there is currently a large group of teachers in their mid-30s (when part-time employment peaks), school leaders need to consider how to make flexible and part-time working part of their schools. Not doing so risks emulating King Canute, trying forlornly to hold back the tide. Better to welcome the challenge, see it as an opportunity, and to reap the benefits.

  • Caroline Sharp is a research director at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). She tweets as @Caroline_Sharp1

Further information & research

Research Insights from NFER & SecEd

This article is part of SecEd’s regular NFER Research Insights series, which offers practical advice for schools based on the latest research findings. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles and an archive of past content can be found in the Knowledge Bank section of the SecEd website: www.sec-ed.co.uk/knowledge-bank/


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