The next Big Thing is AI and how it will revolutionise the way we learn and teach. Like the late author Douglas Adams, I am fascinated by ongoing developments and changes. That said, a change in the law this summer will also affect the way that we work.
The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill gained Royal Assent and was passed into law this summer. Yet there have been few mentions of the potential impacts on education.
Some key points from the document are as follows:
- The right to request flexible working from the first day of a new job, with employers required to consider any requests and provide a reason for rejection.
- New requirements for employers to consult with employees before rejecting their flexible working request.
- Employees can now make two requests to work flexibly in any 12-month period.
- Reduced waiting times for decisions to be made, from three months to two months.
- Existing requirements have been removed, whereby employees must explain what effect, if any, the change applied for would have on the employer and how that effect might be dealt with.
We are all aware that many of our non-teaching family and friends – as well as the communities that we serve – live and work in a very different way. However, the right to flexible working is now written into law. As school leaders, we need to be proactive in the way that we approach this, to ensure that we are ready for questions and situations that will invariably happen.
“It’s an opportunity to re-evaluate how jobs are designed, for them to be flexible from the outset.”
There will be no official legal changes until early 2024, but it would be sensible to begin preparations now. We have an opportunity to re-evaluate how jobs are designed, to enable them to be flexible from the outset. Now that employees have the right to request flexible working from when they commence employment, it provides opportunities for conversations about what work is done, how it is done and – importantly – when work is done.
Flexible working does not automatically mean “working from home” – an important point to be made in discussions with staff. At the time of writing, there is no requirement for schools to have a flexible working policy. However, it would be useful to develop internal protocols to outline important aspects such as people’s rights under the new legislation, the process that staff have to follow to request flexible working, and expectations when staff are working in this way.
Being proactive where flexibility is concerned
A key question will be how we maintain a high quality of teaching and learning, whilst fulfilling our duty of care to staff under this new legislation. This could begin by carrying out staff surveys to ascertain the level of demand for flexible options, rather than reacting to isolated requests. This way, consideration of flexible working can be built into the early stages of timetable planning.
“Flexibility needs to work for the school as well as for the individual.”
A “flexibility by design” approach can help to avoid negative impacts on staff morale, employee relations and educational outcomes of piecemeal arrangements made late on in the process. Part of this is managing staff expectations. It will not be possible for every single request to be fulfilled as requested: flexibility needs to work for the school as well as for the individual.
What is important is that people can raise a request, discuss the options and reach an agreement. What can we do? Both new and existing members of staff should know that there is a process to follow and that we are promoting options for flexibility and staff wellbeing.
Some arrangements which could work successfully include:
- Late starts or early finishes. These would help those with additional family responsibilities.
- Moving form tutor time to a different point in the day.
- Virtual team meetings: the time could remain the same, but colleagues could log in from other locations.
- Consolidated PPA time working from home – potentially on a rotational basis.
- Sharing out management responsibilities.
- Virtual parental meetings: staff could choose to log in from home.
- Virtual CPD from home.
Some of these are already happening. What needs to be developed is consistency. Staff should – rightly – expect that governing boards and leadership teams will be promoting it and talking about it openly.
“The desire to work flexibly is not specific to age or gender.”
Prospective colleagues are increasingly asking about staff wellbeing policies at interview. A school’s approach to flexible working should now be added to this. The desire to work flexibly is not specific to age or gender: it is becoming a life choice in more and more professions, and as teachers we need to model what has become increasingly normal in businesses outside of education.
Thank you to the charity Working Families, who contributed to the writing of this article. Working Families (www.workingfamilies.org.uk) was a major supporter of the Employment Relations Bill.