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7th Nov, 2023

Gavin Beart
Gavin Beart
Job Title
Divisional Managing Director

Flexible working remains a hot topic, with professionals continuing to prioritise their wellbeing in the wake of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the education sector has struggled to adapt at the same pace as other sectors in offering dynamic working conditions – partly due to the stigma surrounding the compatibility of flexible working and a career in teaching.

Timetabling, particularly at secondary level, continues to grow in complexity, as staffing numbers and non-contact time have been slashed. With ongoing demands putting a strain on school budgets, the additional staff costs of some flexible arrangements, such as job-sharing and staggered hours, mean requests are often negatively met.

School staff have the same right to request flexible working arrangements as other employees in the UK. Trusting people to get their work done in a way that also allows them the freedom to manage other priorities, such as children and caring responsibilities, makes a huge impact on their engagement and productivity levels.

We’ve already seen positive change across the sector, with flexible working now established as a core pillar of the Education Staff Wellbeing Charter, a set of commitments from the Department for Education (DfE), Ofsted, and schools and colleges to protect and promote the wellbeing of staff. The DfE guidance encourages schools to take a strategic and proactive approach to flexible working rather than reacting to individual requests in isolation.

But why is flexibility in education so important?

The benefits of flexible working in education settings

It’s hard to ignore the increasing importance of flexibility within education settings; we want to ensure that schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs) can continue to drive educational attainment, alongside making sure their students and staff are given the opportunity to be productive and energised.

Implementing flexible working brings about a host of benefits to schools and MATs, including the ability to retain experienced staff who might leave the profession due to personal or professional reasons. In research conducted by IFF, interviewed leaders noted that flexible working helped retain good staff and improve teacher wellbeing, which were perceived to ultimately lead to better pupil outcomes. This is crucial in education, as the sector battles with ongoing recruitment challenges.

Alongside retention, flexible working opportunities have been known to improve staff morale, motivation, and productivity – helping to create a culture of trust and collaboration. It’s no understatement that this needs to be at the forefront of the education agenda; we must remind ourselves that a teacher's impact is longstanding and will help children shape their lives.

Without a strong workforce, the next generation may suffer.

Common misconceptions around flexible working in education

Those working in schools and MATs often cite challenges to implementing flexible working in schools/settings. While there are challenges, both perceived and real, as experienced by education leaders, there are ways to overcome them.

So, what are some of the potential barriers?

Flexible working is not compatible with teaching

It’s a misconception to think that flexible working is incompatible with a career in teaching, as measures can be put in place to help facilitate it. Evidence shows that flexible arrangements, such as job sharing and planning, preparation and assessment conducted offsite, is associated with other benefits in schools, such as productivity and job satisfaction.

School leaders are encouraged to work together with employees to establish an arrangement that suits all parties, in particular to ensure consistently high-quality provision for pupils.

It’s only available to those with parental or caring responsibilities

Across the majority of sectors, individuals of all ages and circumstances are expecting to work with some form of flexibility.

In addition to parental and caring responsibilities, which are often the main reasons teachers opt to take up flexible working, additional circumstances that flexible working can support include phased retirement, returning from a career break, combining work in a school with professional development, volunteering, or to support work/life balance.

It’s not affordable for schools

Research suggests that the benefits of flexible working extend beyond cost comparisons and management time. If flexible working arrangements are deemed successful and school staff are retained, the reduced level of recruitment and, therefore induction, may outweigh any expense.

At the start of 2023, the DfE recently commissioned research to explore the perceived financial and non-financial costs and benefits of teachers and school leaders working flexibly. The research found that the benefits were generally seen to outweigh the costs, as leaders felt that flexible working helped keep staff happy and loyal.

At a time where recruitment and budgets are in the spotlight, if flexibility can help to alleviate any sort of pressures on both, it may be worth pursuing.

It will affect pupil outcomes

As has been the case for many years, the biggest factor in improving pupil outcomes in school is through the quality of the teaching provided. Having flexible working policies in place can help attract and retain talented teachers, which in turn will support teaching consistency.

Enabling flexible working could also help schools access a wider pool of potential employees, or a more diverse range of skills and experience within the workforce. This helps pupils who have backgrounds not represented in the current teaching workforce, while helping schools to provide equal opportunities.

Implementing flexible working

It’s important to remember that flexible working is a policy, and plenty of thought and consideration needs to be applied before offering it to staff. The five-step flexible working implementation plan outlined by the DfE is hugely beneficial for those schools and MATs wanting to offer flexible working.

Before you get started on offering flexible working or updating any existing policies, consider the following:

  • Develop a clear and comprehensive flexible working policy that sets out the aims, benefits, types, eligibility, process, and review of flexible working in the school or MAT.

  • Create a flexible working toolkit that provides guidance for staff and leaders on how to request, implement, and evaluate flexible working arrangements.

  • Establish a flexible working champion or team that promotes and supports flexible working in the school setting. They can act as advocates for staff who work flexibly or want to do so.

  • Provide training and development opportunities for staff and leaders on how to work flexibly and effectively. This may include topics such as time management, wellbeing strategies, and career planning.

Need help finding talented teachers for your school, or looking for your next teaching role? Get in touch with one or our specialist education consultants today.