Part-time working: Making it work

Written by: Jens Van den Brande | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Part-time and flexible working could become a vital tool if we want to retain secondary teachers in the profession in the coming years. Jens Van den Brande looks at the evidence

Ensuring there are enough high-quality teachers in the sector is crucial for delivering a first-class education for young people.

However, as the number of secondary pupils is forecast to increase by 19 per cent over the next decade, attracting and retaining enough secondary teachers is a key challenge facing school leaders today.

A recent report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) looking at teacher retention highlights that increasing part-time and flexible working opportunities for teachers is likely to encourage more teachers to stay in the profession (Teacher workforce dynamics in England, October 2018).

The prospect of large numbers of full-time teachers moving to part-time can on its own present a risk to teacher supply – for example, a Guardian article last year suggested that if 40 per cent of teachers go down to four days a week, we would need another 40,000 extra people to replace them. However, our research evidence leads us to think there are important reasons to be more positive about the overall effects of more part-time working.

So, why is it imperative for secondary schools to take proactive action to become more flexible employers?

An unmet demand

There is unmet demand for part-time working in the secondary sector, which drives some teachers to leave.

Our research has shown that many secondary teachers who leave teaching for another job, switch from full-time to part-time work. Among secondary teachers who leave for another job, the proportion working part-time rises by 20 percentage points after leaving, which suggests that this unmet demand for part-time work is partly driving some secondary teachers to leave the profession. It also suggests that more flexible working opportunities could have encouraged some of them to stay.

A sustainable option

Part-time working needs to be a more sustainable option for teachers. We found that the difference in leaving rates between part-time and full-time teachers is greater in secondary schools than in primary schools. This may indicate that part-time teachers in secondary schools find it more difficult to sustain the demands of part-time working alongside their other responsibilities.

Improving the retention of part-time teachers would help to ensure that success in accommodating more part-time working for those who want it leads to sustained retention in the profession.

Inflexible schools?

A lack of flexibility is a barrier to potential returners. The relative inflexibility of secondary schools is not only having a negative impact on leaving rates, but it is also creating a barrier to re-entry for secondary teachers who wish to return to teaching – for example, former teachers who left the profession to raise a family and are now ready to return as their children are a little older.

Our recent evaluation of the Return to Teaching pilot (June 2018) identified a lack of part-time and flexible working opportunities as one of the main barriers facing secondary teachers who want to return to the profession.

This barrier was particularly cited by career-breakers, a group of potential returners who otherwise would have the greatest potential to make a successful return with minimal support.

So, what can we do?

This all begs the question: what can secondary schools do to become more flexible employers?

In the March 2018 Teacher Voice Omnibus, school leaders said that the complexity of secondary school timetabling is the main reason why part-time teaching is more difficult to accommodate.

Timetabling issues, along with attitudes and cultures in some schools, mean that flexible opportunities are not as widespread as some teachers would hope.

However, our analysis of the latest teacher workforce data (DfE, June 2018) shows that almost a quarter of secondary schools have a proportion of part-time teachers that is more than 30 per cent, well above the average of about 19 per cent. These are likely to be schools that the sector can learn most from in terms of accommodating part-time working for their staff and there is probably one of these secondary schools near you (which you can check using the information in a downloadable spreadsheet – see further information).

Therefore, if you’re a school leader who wants to improve the working arrangements in your school, why not explore how other schools have managed to overcome barriers to flexible working, such as timetabling, cost and promoting a culture that encourages flexible working. Sharing best practice in overcoming the barriers to providing flexible working opportunities can go a long way to improving teacher retention issues in the secondary sector in the long-term.

While we would encourage school leaders to proactively find ways of accommodating greater flexibility for staff, teachers who would like to work part-time also do need to respect the challenge that school leaders face in ensuring the school is fully staffed at all times.

Not all part-time teachers can work a four-day week with Fridays off. Teachers being flexible on what arrangements they are willing to accept would make the task of senior leaders who are open to accommodating flexible arrangements much easier.

But it is quite possible that some of the unmet demand for part-time work isn’t actually about wanting to work part-time at all. Perhaps it is much more about how manageable a full-time job as a secondary school teacher currently is.

Teachers work just over 50 hours per week on average during term-time, considerably more hours than nurses and police officers work in a normal working week. School leaders need to bear in mind that teachers’ requests to work part-time and flexibly might be a symptom of an unmanagable workload in term-time. Secondary schools should use line management effectively to identify workload issues and intervene to increase support and reduce workload pressures where issues are identified.

The secondary teacher workforce has a large group of teachers approaching their mid-30s, which is when part-time employment peaks. It’s also when teaching roles tend to come with more responsibilities and the demands of family life are at their height for many teachers.

This means that the next few years are a critical time for taking action to make the job of a full-time secondary teacher more sustainable and to provide opportunities for more flexible approaches to accommodate the growing demand for part-time working.

  • Jens Van den Brande is an economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). You can follow him on Twitter @jens_brande

Information & references

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the supplements page of this website:


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