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Flexible working does not need to be ‘rigid’

The last two months have seen an increase in high-profile media cases concerning the refusal of employers to consider flexible working requests from employees. Covid-19 has focused all our minds on the balance between our workplace and home life. Technology has been used to far greater worth and the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of family and relationships. It is therefore only a matter of time before legal challenges encroach widely on the education sphere. How ready is your school/Trust for this? What can be done to address flexible working requests now?

Michael Scott is Headteacher of Newport Girls’ High School in Shropshire. Appointed as the Flexible Working Ambassador School (FWAS) Lead for the West Midlands region in the spring, he has been challenging school leaders and Trusts to consider how to adopt a fresh approach to this important topic.

With leadership experience in three girls’ schools where a greater than average number of staff are female (and the proportion of part time staff in his schools has been around 40-55%), clever timetabling and a pragmatic, acquiescent approach have won favour with talented colleagues who may have had no other choice but to leave the profession. Around 26% of female teachers nationwide work part time, compared to 42% of women in the workforce nationally. But is flexible working just about allowing female employees to go part time? Not at all.

The government’s drive to augment flexible working opportunities includes consideration of (among others); phased retirement, job-shares, staggered, compressed, or annualised hours, family days, home or remote working and time in lieu. Some lend themselves more to support staff than teachers, but almost all flexible working styles feature in Newport’s staff with the school’s website including case studies of recent decisions. But there are also one-off or semi-regular opportunities that make a real difference; allowing staff with PPA in the last lesson of the day the opportunity to leave early to not only collect their child from primary school but also maintain a relationship with their child’s teacher augurs a key message that ‘we trust you to do what is needed to get the job done’.

As leaders we must engender a culture of confidence that colleagues will make up this time once their children are sleeping and this example often positively influences staff to remain in post, thus reducing stifling recruitment costs, promoting positive staff wellbeing as well as continuity in teaching and pastoral support for students.

Timetabling inflexibility is the most often cited barrier in the secondary sector. Yet, it can be relatively straightforward to overcome provided your timetabler is open to change and a fresh approach to student grouping and staff allocation. Classes don’t always have to be split to accommodate part timers; larger staff teams in subjects like English and Mathematics can feature certain combinations of staff who have the same days in/out of school, thus removing splits. Students may not suffer an often-perceived lack of progress by being taught in ability groups common to other subjects. These measures can open up a timetable and foster greater flexibility. This is a common request for training from the schools that are being supported through FWAS and is an area of specialism in NGHS’s work.

With this week’s government proposal seeming to allow all employees the right to request flexible working when they start a new job, schools who are yet to tackle this dilemma will need to work with their HR Managers to have a plan and procedure in place. The FWAS scheme can support school leaders and trustees to implement positive change. Discover more about the FWAS scheme, or find your region’s representative school.

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