Let’s Make Flexible Working Work

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Could flexible working solve the teacher shortage?

Some blame the teacher shortage on Ofsted. Some place the blame firmly on unsustainable workloads. Then there is poor behaviour, lousy leadership, teacher training gaps, long hours, low pay and not forgetting expensive cities and now Brexit.

So what can we do about it?

Be Flexible

One solution is for teachers to push for more flexible working arrangements and for some schools to get their act together and recognise that flexible working means more than just working part-time or job sharing.

All employees have the statutory right to request flexible working and this has been the case for a few years now. Since 30 June 2014, you have the right if you have at least 26 weeks’ continuous employment service and almost all (94%) UK organisations now offer staff some form of flexible working.

A growing body of evidence highlights the substantial benefits of flexible working, including increased productivity, a more motivated workforce, greater employee engagement and greater diversity amongst the workforce. A healthier work-life balance is obvious.

The Institute for Leadership and Management believes,

The very concept of flexible working calls for flexibility of thinking within organisations. There is no ‘right way’ to implement flexible working – it rests entirely on the demands of a particular organisation – but employers can implement clear frameworks and guidelines that will assist in its success.

Experiences Of Teachers

The NASUWT surveyed 1000 teachers across all phases/sectors for their report ‘Flexible working: The Experiences of Teachers’ and unearthed some very interesting findings.

They found 23% of teachers said their workplace had adopted a flexible working policy, despite the fact that all schools and colleges should have a policy in place by law and make workers aware they have the right to work flexibly. The survey found:

  • 90% of flexible working requests made by women teachers
  • 52% of women teachers questioned did not know whether their employer had a flexible working policy
  • 25% of teachers confirmed that their employer did not have a policy supporting flexible working
  • 1/3 of all respondents had their flexible working request denied and that for some groups (those on the leadership spine or Teaching and Learning Responsibility (TLR) holders) it was nearing 100%

The NASUWT found:

  1. Teachers lacked knowledge about the process with regards to their rights and their employer’s legal duties.
  2. All sectors of education were equally at fault for denying flexible working requests.
  3. Flexible working requests are granted on an informal basis.
  4. Teachers are reluctant to pursue their flexible working request.
  5. Teachers are more likely to leave the profession than return to school full time or to unworkable timetables and hostile colleagues.
  6. School leadership is not compatible with flexible working.
  7. School and college leaders have entrenched negative opinions about flexible working.

The Flexible working survey found that those schools that refused flexible working requests gave three main reasons:

  1. The cost to the employer
  2. The detrimental effect on pupil attainment
  3. The detrimental effect on employer performance.

Teachers also listed the following explanations given by some schools for rejecting applications for flexible working:

  • Not right for the school
  • Too many changes to the timetable already
  • Don’t split GCSE classes
  • It’s not convenient
  • It simply wasn’t possible
  • All job shares have already been allocated
  • It’s not good for the children
  • Because everyone else will want to
  • The school could not recruit suitably qualified staff to job share
  • The school doesn’t need part-time workers
  • Having two teachers will confuse the children
  • The school doesn’t split exam classes
  • Parents won’t like it.

The NASUWT found that there are schools and colleges operating flexible working for all and where this is happening it is proving highly successful for teachers. What matters the most regarding flexible working arrangements is the attitudes of senior leaders.

The NASUWT has produced guidance to help teachers understand their rights and how to go about making a flexible-working request. You can access this guidance here.

Think Ahead

The think tank Policy Exchange argues that schools in England should embrace flexible working to tackle a teacher supply crisis. Jonathan Simons of the Policy Exchange says that flexible working could actually bring many thousands of teachers back into teaching, particularly women.

Jonathan says that flexible working isn’t just part-time working or job sharing but being aware that teachers will flow in and out of teaching over the years.  In particular, he says

Our education system needs to embrace a new way of working. If it doesn’t, schools are going to continue to struggle to attract and retain the best talent.

Data from the NfER suggests that, of teachers who leave in order to “look after family”, only about half will return to the classroom.

In a profession that is almost 75% female, the Policy Exchange argue that flexible working offers specific benefits for addressing the challenge of retaining working mothers.

There is a shocking amount of talent being wasted with around 6,000 women aged 30-39 leaving the profession every year with relatively few subsequently returning.

The Policy Exchange teamed up with the Association of School and College Leaders to produce a collection of essays on the teacher shortages and these can be found here.

Old School

What the research evidence above tells us is that:

  • negative employer attitudes and practices are largely to blame for the shortage of teachers because their out-of-date or stubborn thinking and procedures are virtually forcing many teachers to look for  alternatives to permanent employment, to change employment, or to leaving teaching. These negative attitudes hit women the hardest.
  • teachers are less likely to benefit from flexible working opportunities compared to workers in other employment sectors.

It’s time for teachers to flex their muscles by challenging negative employer attitudes and dinosaur thinking and for open-minded and forward-thinking schools to share good practice. Clearly  some leaders need to move with the times rather than contribute to the teacher shortage.

Unbending schools that deny requests for flexible working come up short and don’t fully appreciate the implications for the individual and the profession as a whole.


Guidance to help teachers, schools and employers make arrangements for flexible working can be found at:

Flexible Working in Schools: Guidance for local authorities, maintained schools, academies and free schools, Department for Education, February 2017

One thought on “Let’s Make Flexible Working Work

  1. I think it is also important to highlight the lack of part time teacher training options. There are incredibly few university courses that you can do part time, and none of the School Direct options allow part time study. I have just finished a Flexible PGCE in secondary science at Edge Hill University and this course is not running next year. How can we recruit more teachers when there is no way to train flexibly?

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