How flexible working can succeed in your secondary school

Written by: Colin Hooker | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Flexible working is increasingly seen as a solution to recruitment and retention challenges, especially given our recent experience during Covid. Colin Hooker advises on some effective ways to offer flexible options which benefit schools, staff and pupils

The pandemic has jolted us out of our comfort zone and forced society to change the way it thinks about the working day. Having made rapid adaptations during lockdown, many businesses are continuing to allow their employees to work flexibly. As a result, more people can balance work and family commitments, look after their wellbeing, and maintain, if not improve, their productivity.

It is a leap of progress for the business world, but opportunities for flexible working in secondary schools have traditionally been few and far between. After all, when the children are in the classroom, teachers and teaching support staff have to be there too.

However, flexible working can work for schools. The solution lies not in the corporate set-up of home offices, virtual hubs and global co-worker spaces, but in a tailored approach to flexible working which fits in with the needs of the school and its pupils.

Fresh thinking for schools

Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen that headteachers are increasingly recognising the merits of offering flexible working and are seeking advice on how to make it work for their schools.

In November, the government published new guidance on flexible working (DfE, 2021), stating that schools had reported a range of benefits from implementing flexible options. These include retaining experienced staff, the ability to recruit from a broader pool of teachers, promoting wellbeing, and improving work/life balance.

The guidance also reminds us that offering flexible working arrangements can help to ensure that work suits employees at different stages of their life, such as those with caring responsibilities, planning a phased retirement, returning from a career break, or combining work in a school with professional development or work in their field of study.

The guidance document sets out ways for schools to build flexibility into the working day. The main approaches to flexible working as identified by DfE-commissioned research (DfE, 2019) involve:

  • Part-time: Working less than full-time hours and/or working fewer days.
  • Job-share: Two or more people doing one job and splitting the hours.
  • Split role: Tasks divided between two part-time job holders.
  • Split shifts: A working shift comprising two or more separate periods of duty in a day.
  • Staggered hours: The employee has different start, finish and break times from other staff.
  • Staggered weeks: Such as a formal agreement to work outside term-time to deliver booster classes/sports programmes/enrichment activities.
  • Compressed hours: Working full-time hours but over fewer days.
  • Home/remote working: Regularly/formally agreed as part of the working week (e.g. PPA/admin tasks, holding remote meetings).
  • Phased retirement: Gradually reduced working hours and/or responsibilities to transition from full-time to retirement.
  • Annualised hours: Working hours spread across the year, which may include some school closure days or where hours vary across the year to suit the school and employee.
  • Sabbatical: Employee takes a period of time away from work, over and above annual leave (usually the job is kept open for them to return).
  • Career break: Employee takes unpaid time off work. Contract is suspended or ended, without a guaranteed return, depending on policy and individual agreement.
  • Flexi/lieu time: The paid time off work an employee gets for having worked additional hours.
  • Family leave: Days of authorised leave during term time, for example to care for family members.

While none of these measures are new, the difference is that changing attitudes, improvements in technology and buy-in from parents and the wider school community could well make flexible working the norm rather than the exception.

In a recent article, Timewise, a flexible working consultancy, identified four crucial success factors for flexible working: leadership, communication, a team-based approach, and open-mindedness (Timewise, 2021). The article also suggested some approaches:

  • Actively promoting part-time and job share roles, integrating the request process into timetabling, and advertising positions as open to flexibility.
  • Having half of the teaching staff working four days a week and using the resources this frees up to enhance the curriculum with specialist teachers and coaches.
  • Expecting that teachers will want flexibility and managing timetabling accordingly, with an annual review and clarity on what is possible.

Building flexibility into the timetable

The flexible working measures outlined by the DfE can make a world of difference to staff members in balancing their personal and professional lives. However, scheduling a secondary school timetable is a complex undertaking, and building in flexibility for individual teachers can add a new layer of complexity to the task.

One way to address the timetabling issue is to find out whether teachers are willing and able to teach more than one subject, as this can open up a wealth of opportunities for staff to cover for colleagues.

Mike Applewhite, headteacher of William de Ferrers School in Essex, uses this approach to embed greater flexibility into his school timetable: “We consider flexibility when we’re recruiting teachers. We now ask people as a matter of course what other subjects they might be able to teach.

“One of our modern foreign languages teachers was really excited about also teaching geography. Naturally we plan these lessons carefully and make sure nobody is overloaded.”

Many teachers have expertise in more than one field which they would be happy to share. If they can teach multiple subjects it can add a new dimension to timetable planning, giving students access to specialist subject teaching when cover is required.

Smarter ways to manage non-teaching time

The government’s guidance suggests ways of considering flexible working on a whole-school level by designing solutions which work for wider groups of staff. This could include reviewing arrangements for when staff can work from home, and looking at how planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time is scheduled.

Some schools are offering teachers the option to carry out their PPA time at home. This can help people balance their personal and professional commitments more effectively. For instance, a teacher might prefer to do their supermarket shop on a Wednesday afternoon and save their planning for Sunday morning if that works better for them.

When staff have the freedom to manage their own time, they gain the space to be more focused and productive. A great lesson is still a great lesson whether the teacher has planned it while working in the staffroom, at the kitchen table or from a café in town.

As we all know, video calls have their limitations and they will never be quite the same as a proper staff get-together with tea and biscuits. But even if in-person gatherings are back on the agenda, there is no reason to abandon the virtual meeting altogether if it can support flexible working.

Scheduling the occasional online meeting can add welcome flexibility. Similarly, enabling staff to dial into a face-to-face meeting from home, if the technology allows, can make all the difference for someone who is juggling family commitments.

Engaging staff in finding flexible solutions

Staff understand which measures are going to help them work flexibly, and by encouraging staff to work together to find solutions, flexible working is more likely to succeed.

Mr Applewhite believes it is important for staff to take the initiative on flexible options, in collaboration with colleagues, rather than the leadership team making all the decisions.

He explained: “This year we continued with online parents’ evenings, which was a suggestion that came from staff. We have also arranged our INSET day for just before half-term and by starting early and finishing early, everyone gains some extra time, which is good for wellbeing.”

Staff wellbeing has taken on a new importance since Covid took hold, and staff have become used to supporting each other through tough times.

“Our staff recognise we are working hard and putting wellbeing at the forefront. They know we listen and we’re open to dialogue about approaches such as flexible working which can help to make staff feel valued and appreciated,” Mr Applewhite added.

Sharing the benefits of flexible working

Schools may not be able to agree to every flexible working request, but there are bound to be opportunities for school and staff to meet halfway by building elements of flexibility into the school day.

As the government guidance states, school leaders who have already implemented flexible working in their schools are reporting a positive effect on recruitment and retention. Staff are more likely to stay and work for a school which understands their needs rather than searching for a more flexible role elsewhere.

Similarly, the impact of flexible working on staff wellbeing and work/life balance should not be underestimated. A person with a flexible role will be better equipped to give their all when they are at work and that is good for their leaders, colleagues and most importantly, their pupils.

As Mr Applewhite concluded: “Our philosophy is that we welcome flexible working when everything is focused on what’s best for the children.”

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