Flexible working: A case study

Written by: Imogen Rowley | Published:
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Flexible working isn’t possible in schools – or is it? Imogen Rowley looks at one school that’s made flexible working a success, and offers advice for how you can too

Teaching has long lagged behind other professions in its approach to flexible working. In a 2016 NASUWT survey, only eight per cent of teachers felt that flexible working was encouraged by their school.

For all the sneers from outsiders of 3pm finishes and 13 weeks of holiday, those in the thick of it are more than aware of how un-family-friendly teaching can be, and why the option to work flexibly may help to ease the retention crisis – as was recently suggested by the NFER’s teacher retention research (SecEd, November 2018).

While organisations such as the Chartered College of Teaching and the National Education Union have pledged to encourage flexible working in the profession, the idea that it just “won’t work” for teachers lingers on. One school in Manchester, however, is proving that, actually, it can. So how does this school do it?

Manchester Communication Academy, a secondary school with 1,200 pupils on roll, has pioneered part-time and flexible hours for all its staff since it opened in 2010. Twelve of its 100 teachers work part-time, and all are on permanent contracts.

Staff retention rates are superb: less than 10 per cent of staff left the school in the 2017/18 academic year. Staff survey comments also pick up on how flexible working has allowed teachers to fit the job they love around their home life, without detriment to their career development. Indeed, one has become the head of her department.

The school’s approach to flexible working centres on having a formulaic timetable and six faculty areas. Each year group is timetabled to one faculty area per two-hour period, and there are three periods every day except Friday (which has two).

This means that each faculty is free for two periods every week. These free periods are set aside for shared planning activities, but the timetable can be structured so that they fall earlier or later in the day if staff members have other commitments, such as caring for elderly relatives or dropping children at school.

Thanks to the timetable structure, the school is also able to offer whole-school CPD on Fridays (when pupils go home at 12:30pm) and one term-time flexi-day per year for all staff members.

Manchester Communication Academy is fortunate that its size and layout mean it can divide into faculties and facilitate free periods for an entire faculty at once. A dedicated “social investment department” oversees Friday after-school sessions for any pupils who are unable to go home at lunchtime.

Approximately 75 per cent of pupils qualify for Pupil Premium funding, enabling higher staff-to-pupil ratios that ensure disadvantaged children get the attention they need.

The school has also made huge savings in other areas as a result of offering flexible working. It reduced the supply budget by 73 per cent in the last academic year, and being open to job applicants seeking part-time roles means that it spends less money on expensive supply staff and sickness pay.

So, how might you make flexible working work for your school?

Whether or not you plan to introduce a flexible working policy, you should be aware that all employees have the right to request flexible working, as long as they have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks.

Employers also have a statutory duty to consider flexible working requests objectively and consistently. You must provide a sound business reason for refusing a request, so it is a good idea to seek professional legal or HR advice before doing so.

Bear in mind that “flexible working” takes many forms, including part-time work, job-shares, phased retirement, allowing PPA or CPD time at home, staggered hours or extra days off. Every school’s circumstances are different, but here are some tips on approaches that might just make it work for you:

  • Take a look at your timetable – can you simplify it in any way? Perhaps you can’t organise the school into faculties, but is there any kind of logical system whereby a department, year group or member of staff could have free or PPA time at the beginning or end of the day?
  • Advertise all vacancies as flexible hours to attract a wider pool of talent and be sure you aren’t inadvertently deterring outstanding candidates.
  • Look at the bigger picture when making funding decisions about staffing and justifying your decisions to governors. Offering flexible working may mean you save on long-term sickness pay for teachers who may otherwise end up feeling overworked or unable to cope, or on expensive supply staff to fill scheduling gaps.
  • For job-sharers, arrange common non-contact time so that proper handovers and planning can take place and to reassure pupils that each teacher is aware of what the other is doing. Teachers should also set clear expectations between themselves for sharing responsibilities (such as assessment, marking, parents’ evenings and report-writing) to avoid problems further down the line.
  • Ensure that flexible working is part of a wider conversation about teachers’ wellbeing, and that any wellbeing initiative you introduce addresses the regular, day-to-day stresses that teachers face. For example, Manchester Communication Academy has an on-site ironing service and a staff-only workroom.
  • Don’t rule out flexible working for senior leaders. There is no legal requirement for a school to have a deputy or assistant headteacher at all times, so these roles could be offered on a part-time basis. Headteacher roles can also be shared – or, in areas where recruitment is difficult, a recently retired headteacher who is willing to come back part-time could share the role with a less-experienced school leader to help them transition into headship.

  • Imogen Rowley is a content writer at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools.

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