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Building flexibility into secondary schools

The teaching profession is under strain, and flexible working could be one way to increase staffing levels. This report, produced by Timewise in collaboration with Now Teach, explores the issues.

Building flexibility into secondary schools

The education profession is in crisis. Long hours, constantly changing workloads, and better paid opportunities elsewhere, are all factors that are making recruitment and retention an ever increasing challenge.

While flexible working cannot tackle all of these issues, it has a big role to play in improving work-life balance for teachers. It can help make the profession (one dominated by women) more accessible to those with other commitments such as family.

This project explored how to create part-time and flexible pathways in secondary schools. Key points are summarised below.

King’s School in Winchester has more than a third part-time staff and uses split classes to good effect, with subject teachers saying this is their preferred option. The modern foreign language department has a high number of part-time staff and exam results are some of the highest in the school (6).

Current practice around flexible working in secondary schools

Around 17% of secondary school teachers work part-time1, well below the 27% national rate for all workers. And, in a female-dominated profession, significantly behind the 42% national rate for women working part-time. Part-time work at a senior level in schools is even rarer: only 3% of heads do so, compared with 13% of directors and managers across the whole workforce2.  

The prevalence of other types of flexible working is harder to quantify. Anecdotally, many schools have a number of informal arrangements, such as late starts or working partly from home.

But overall it seems that flexibility of any type is granted on an ad-hoc basis, in response to requests from valued employees. It’s rare to find a school which is proactive about offering part-time and flexible roles.

The case for change

Retention: The lack of part-time and flexible roles has been identified as a key reason for the teaching brain drain. When they leave the profession for a different one, many secondary teachers reduce their hours3

Attracting new and returning teachers: Recruitment data from the TES suggests that only 6.6% of secondary teaching jobs are advertised as part-time. Meanwhile, 46% of teachers who have taken a career break report that a lack of flexible or part-time opportunities was a barrier to returning to the profession4.

Progression: The low proportion of SLT members working flexibly or part-time means that there isn’t a visible career pathway for ambitious teachers who want or need to work in this way. Data around the sector’s gender pay gap suggests that it is particularly difficult for women to progress. Almost three-quarters of teachers are women, but only a third of secondary heads and two-thirds of primary heads are.

What are the barriers to making teaching flexible?

Structural barriers: The logistics of timetabling are often cited as the biggest obstacle to flexible working. Staff:student ratios and providing cover for absences also pose challenges.

Budget: There is a belief that flexible working involves extra costs. (However there is no evidence from other sectors that flexible working is more expensive in the long run – especially when balanced against the costs of recruiting and training replacement staff.) 

Workload and the intensity of the school day: Teachers worry that moving to part-time will mean a full-time workload for part-time pay, and that they will have to sacrifice their non-teaching time. And management fear that part-timers won’t be prepared to work extra hours.

Cultural and attitudinal barriers: There are many widely held beliefs about the infeasibility of flexible working within secondary schools. These include: a fear of ‘opening the floodgates’; concerns around fairness and the validity of reasons to work flexibly; potential negative impact on students; management capacity to manage a flexible workforce.

Timewise recommendations for schools

To help overcome barriers, challenge outdated perceptions, and create opportunities for flexible working, Timewise has developed a six-step framework for schools to use. Details of this can be found in the full report.

In particular, Timewise identifies a need for training support in how to design flexible jobs. This will require management teams to consider when, where and in how much time the various aspects of teaching work are done, and consider whether they can be done differently.

Flexible job design options for teachers and schools

Flexible job design options for teachers and schools

Areas for further exploration

The report identifies some of the key areas for focus within individual schools, but there is a great deal of work to be done at a sector level by the DfE and other stakeholders. Timewise recommends, and is actively exploring, further research and analysis into the following areas:

  • The impact on students whose teachers work flexibly
  • The extent to which flexible jobs could impact retention and recruitment
  • The extent to which timetabling is an obstacle, or whether current processes and software are adaptable to more flexibility
  • The financial implications of flexible working.

Please get in touch if you are interested in investigating any or all of these areas further.

Published July 2019

Download full research report


1  Teacher Retention and Turnover Research, Interim Report, NFER, 2017

2  ONS

3  Teacher Retention and Turnover Research – Is the Grass Greener Beyond Teaching?, NFER, 2017

4 Exploring Flexible Working Practice in Schools, Literature review, DfE, 2019

6 Flexible Working in Schools, Guidance for local authorities, maintained schools, academies and free schools, DfE, 2017

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