The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 makes some significant changes and could have a substantial impact on schools, albeit the implementation date remains to be confirmed.
The aim of the Act is to give better access to flexible working, simplify the process of requesting flexible working and promote dialogue between employers and employees. However, it is important to remember that this is still only a right to request, not a guarantee that the request will be granted.
The Act introduces four key changes:
Employees are no longer required to explain how they think any request might impact on their employer or how the effect of their request could be dealt with by their employer.
This could make the process less daunting for staff and may lead to an increase in the number of requests. It places the onus on schools to consider the impact of flexible working requests. This is also likely to increase the need for consistency, ensuring schools have and follow a clear process and keep it under review.
Employees can make two requests in any 12-month period.
Previously only one request could be made in any 12 month period. Again, this may mean an increase in the number of requests. Schools will need to consider the time and resources available and needed to deal with requests.
Employers will need to consult with employees before rejecting a request.
The Act does not specify the level of consultation that is required. However, it is likely to mean more dialogue is required to discuss the request. It will be important to ensure that staff dealing with requests are trained and that conversations are fair and consistent.
Employers will be required to approve or reject a flexible working request within two months of receipt unless an extension is agreed with the employee.
This is a reduction from three months. With less time to respond, it will mean that schools will need to be more responsive. Schools should remember that they are under a duty to deal with applications reasonably. Further, if an application is rejected, it must be based on one of the eight statutory grounds.
The Government had suggested it would introduce these rights to flexible working as a Day One Right, removing the requirement for 26 weeks’ service. However, this has not been included in the Act, but the Government may still introduce legislation to do this.
What steps should you take?
Schools will need to update their policies and procedures, train staff, and consider how flexible working practices can be implemented in their school environment.
Start considering how flexible working practices may suit your school environment. This will vary from school to school and role to role. There is also likely to be a tension between managing the provision of education for children and the desire for continuity as opposed to accommodating flexibility. What did or did not work during the pandemic is likely to be relevant and may provide arguments to both support and/or reject flexible working requests.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of Independent School Management Plus magazine, out now.