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Is flexible working the key to boosting performance and teacher well-being?

The government certainly thinks so. It has updated its non-statutory guidance on flexible working in schools and recommends that leaders ‘consider embedding strategic, whole-school approaches to flexible working’ to retain experienced staff, recruit from a broader pool of teachers, support wellbeing and improve work-life balance. Although the guidance refers to schools, it's equally relevant to colleges.

There's no doubt that something needs to change to address the widespread unhappiness amongst teachers and leaders revealed in the latest Teacher Wellbeing Survey which we summarised here. Teachers are leaving the profession and there aren't enough trainee teachers to replace them. 

But is flexible working the answer and how easy is it to implement in the education sector? 

Let's look at the evidence. In January 2023 the government published a research report which explored the costs and benefits of flexible working in schools. Its findings were based on 40 in-depth interviews with school leaders all of whom worked in schools where flexible working was used in some form. 

The results were positive: the benefits of flexible working were generally seen to outweigh the costs. Leaders said that their primary focus was to make sure that arrangements didn't impact ‘pupil experience’ or cause practical problems in the running of their schools. Cost was not a significant factor and often wasn’t accurately measured. 

What sort of flexible working arrangements did the research track?

The DfE defined flexible working arrangements as teachers or leaders working in any of the following ways:

  • Part-time or job share
  • Occasional ad hoc personal days outside of school holidays, or ad hoc start or finish times
  • PPA time off-site
  • Time off in lieu of working additional hours 
  • Home or remote working off site
  • Phased retirement
  • Annualised hours
  • Staggered hours
  • Compressed hours  

Part-time working and job shares were the most popular forms of flexible working; phased retirement and staggered or compressed hour were much less common. And, in general, flexible working arrangements were less common among members of the senior leadership team than among teachers.

Did schools actively promote flexible working?

Generally, no. Flexible working was seen as something that created an administrative burden. Leaders accepted that they could overcome these issues, but many had “no desire to proactively incur them”. There were exceptions to this view. One school incorporated flexible working into their wellbeing policy, which they actively promoted. The headteacher reported that this had a positive impact on morale and believed it was useful tool in recruiting new, high quality staff and was particularly appealing to younger, highly motivated staff. 

What were the benefits of flexible working?

85% said that it had a positive impact on overall wellbeing and 82% said that it helped to retain staff who might overwise leave. Schools felt that granting flexible working requests was one of a limited number of tools they had at their disposal to help with staff retention: “We have tight pay scales, it's a challenging job, so offering flexibility is one lever we have to help keep good people”. Some also recognised that retaining staff helped to build a stable culture in their workplaces.

Other benefits were improved productivity (74%), reduced absence (58%) and the ability to attract a greater number of candidates (58%).

Schools also said that accepting requests for flexible working made teachers feel valued and helped to improve morale. This was particularly true of ad hoc requests which helped to alleviate pressure points in the work-life balance of staff.

What does the guidance say about flexible working?

The guidance sets out the current legal position with regard to dealing with requests for flexible working (and will be updated again to reflect changes coming into force in April). It contains nothing controversial and probably won't tell you anything you don't already know about the law. 

However, it goes on to address some of the concerns leaders may have about granting requests such as parental attitudes, increased costs (particularly in respect of job sharing), pupil attainment, performance and timetabling. It gives sensible advice about these issues, although it's not as detailed as it could have been. It also signposts the support schools and colleges can access to help teachers who have taken a break return to work.

The guidance also briefly considers workload and makes the point that employees wanting to work flexibly may find managing their workload ‘more challenging’. It recommends that they speak to their manager about how their workload can be managed alongside a reduction in working hours and provides links to the school workload reduction toolkit

Radical flexible working arrangements

Some schools and colleges are adopting more radical options to help improve the work/life balance of their staff such as reducing workloads across the board. Dixons Academies recently announced it was compressing 10 days of teaching into nine, allowing remote working during non-contact time and offering personal days during term-time. We know that some colleges are trialing similar arrangements. 

In 2022 the government launched a six month trial of the four-day working week (which covered a range of different working arrangements but, on average, resulted in working four fewer hours each week). Some employers closed on day five, others adopted working patterns which overlapped to ensure continuity. Whilst it didn't include any schools or colleges, feedback was overwhelmingly positive and 92% of employers decided to continue with the trial. Adopting this type of arrangement isn't easy in the education sector, but nor is it impossible.

How to make a success of flexible working 

There are many ways to support staff who want to work flexibly. 

  1. What message does your approach to flexible working send to staff? Do you actively promote your policy or do you only think about flexibility when someone makes a formal request? 
  2. If you want to take a more pro-active approach, get buy in from the senior leadership team. They need to consider flexibility when making relevant decisions, including those about student groupings and PPA time. 
  3. Think about small changes that you can make that don't require staff to make formal applications under the statutory scheme such as allowing staff to take some time off during the working day to attend their own children's school events (such as sports day or nativity plays) or to attend routine medical appointments. This sort of flexibility is really valued by staff. You will need to create guidelines as you won't be able to grant multiple requests for time off on the same day. How will you decide which request to grant? First come, first served is unfair in this context, but having a rota might work so that staff who took time off one year, wouldn't have priority the next etc. If you are going to introduce a new policy around this consult your staff. Find out what they think will make a difference and engage them in the process. 
  4. Give staff some agency around flexibility. Can they approach other members of staff to cover them before asking for permission to take time off? How do staff make the time up? How quickly should they do so? 
  5. Treat people fairly. If you accommodate a request, don't overload another member of staff with work. Staff that don't want flexible working still need a work life balance and won't thank you if they end up picking up the slack for colleagues who have changed their working hours. 
  6. Accept that you won't get it right for everyone! Be transparent and, if you can't accept a request, explain the reason. Is there a compromise position? Can you offer a short trial period to see if it could work?
  7. Talk to other schools/MATs or colleges in your area who are already embracing flexible working or pioneering new approaches. What pinch points have they experienced and how did they overcome these? What can you learn from their experiences?
  8. Make sure your policy is fit for purpose. The statutory flexible working regime is changing in April so it's a good time to review it to ensure that it is legally compliant and covers other ad hoc arrangements too. 

Will you share your experiences with us? 

We would like to find out more about flexible working roles and models in practice in schools and colleges. If you’d be willing to share your experience, please let our education sector lead, Jenny Arrowsmith, know on: This information will help us continue to provide useful guidance on this issue. Rest assured, we'll anonymise what you've told us and won't identify you without your permission.  

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