The Department for Education published two case studies on flexible working solutions in trusts and schools on the 12th of May 2021. Below are the findings from two case studies: the first from United Learning with insights from High Hazels Academy, Shoreham Academy and Guildford High School, and a second case study from Reach2 Academy Trust's White Meadows Primary School.
Case study 1: United Learning
Schools group United Learning has taken a trust-wide approach to designing and delivering innovative flexible working solutions.
United Learning is a large group of schools with over 80 primary and secondary schools across the UK, predominately academy schools and a smaller number of independent schools.
Part-time rates for teachers across the trust are similar to national averages, but vary greatly from school to school, with some schools taking a more proactive approach than others.
United Learning’s leadership sees a role for their trust in addressing recruitment and retention challenges. They are specifically working to attract and keep high quality teachers, as well as increase numbers of teachers in subjects where graduates are in high demand.
Additionally, the trust is keen to ensure that it is an inclusive employer with a diverse employee body, a minimal gender pay gap and a set of working practices which work for all.
In 2018, the trust’s leaders carried out a strategic planning exercise which identified that flexible working could address both these issues. As a result, they sought to improve the understanding and implementation of flexible working across the trust, through a 2-stage project.
From the end of 2018 to spring 2019, the trust carried out a review of policies and guidance related to flexible working across the group. This included:
- rewriting the trust’s flexible working policy, highlighting the role of informal dialogue and proactive leadership to inform decisions and move away from a request-response model
- new tools and guidance for leaders and staff on how to plan and discuss flexible working options
- training for the HR team, carried out by Timewise, providing the skills needed to support and drive conversations about flexible working
- sharing of best practice across the trust, including video case studies from headteachers with a good record for enabling flexible working, and a discussion led by a school with a high proportion of flexibly-employed staff
Starting in October 2019, United Learning launched a research project with 7 volunteer schools which demonstrated positive attitudes towards flexible working. This included:
- an introductory meeting to bring the schools’ leaders and HR teams together, encouraging inter-school dialogue and sharing of best practice
- training and workshops for headteachers, delivered by Timewise, including a focus on the role of job design and how to use it successfully
- in-depth training on adapting the timetabling process to incorporate flexible working, including a practical ‘how to’ session delivered by a school which excels in this area
Progress was then reviewed and priorities set for the next steps in January 2020. Areas for further exploration included:
- building flexible working into recruitment plans
- creating a more systematic approach to staff consultation
- exploring how to consolidate planning, preparation and assessment time to allow remote working
- scheduling of meetings and pastoral time to support staggered start and finish times.
Impact of coronavirus (COVID-19)
The COVID-19 pandemic began midway through stage 2. The unexpected challenge of providing distanced teaching and learning for pupils put some of United Learning’s plans on hold.
However, the move to remote education for many pupils also created an opportunity for schools to explore the techniques and technology required to make remote schooling – and remote working – work. The experience also removed some of the perceived barriers, and highlighted other possibilities, such as using IT to allow remote access to team meetings.
United Learning and its member schools will be incorporating what they have learned into their post-COVID-19 strategic planning.
Examples of good practice in United Learning schools
High Hazels Academy
High Hazels Academy, a primary school in Sheffield, has undergone a transformation as a result of implementing flexible working. With staff turnover above trust and national averages, the school’s leadership team undertook a programme of initiatives, including mentoring, continuing professional development (CPD), succession planning and flexible working.
Having actively engaged with United Learning’s guidance on flexible working, and taken part in the training and support they were offered, the school’s leaders have been able to increase opportunities for flexible working across all staff groups.
They are now taking an even more proactive step by recruiting new staff on a flexible basis. This, in turn, has increased the school’s diversity and improved the inclusion and well-being of staff.
The school’s headteacher, Asma Maqsood-Shah, believes that strong communication has been central to the success of their new flexible working strategy. She has built in a system for 2-way feedback around every aspect of the school, so that the senior leadership team can be clear about the impact on staff.
Following the new approach, part-time teacher rates are now higher than the national average and, according to the annual staff survey, engagement has increased from 68% in 2017 to 89% in 2019. Voluntary staff turnover rates have reduced significantly in the same timeframe, dropping from 12.2% to 2.5% in 2019 for Key Stage 1, and from 10.9% to 4.9% for Key Stage 2, and recruitment costs have reduced accordingly.
Only 2 years ago, the school needed to recruit between 6 and 8 teachers a year. in 2020 just 2 new teachers have been needed.
Faced with a high proportion of teaching staff who were approaching retirement, the senior leadership team at Shoreham Academy have taken a proactive approach. They have actively encouraged those who were considering stepping down to opt for phased retirement, which allows them to continue working in a part-time role and draw part of their pension. This has helped the school to retain these teachers’ experience and skills, and support their wellbeing, whilst simultaneously reducing budget costs.
Flexible working is now available to all staff, at every level, and the school’s leaders are rarely unable to meet a staff member’s needs. Part-time teacher rates are above the national average, and informal flexibility is also treated positively, with staff members willing and able to cover for each other when needed.
From September 2020, the school’s vice principal will be working 3 days per week, passing on some responsibilities to the assistant principal. This will in turn support the assistant principal’s CPD and the school’s succession planning.
Guildford High School
Guildford High School’s approach is driven by the headteacher’s belief that outstanding schools are built on outstanding teachers, and that retaining them is a clear priority. Under her leadership, the timetabling process is not based on part-timers working a specific number of days, but instead on the days they wish to be in school. Their contracts are built around timetabling software. Teachers are given clear expectations about what is possible, so that everyone knows where they stand.
For example, it is understood that part-time core subject teachers will have to be in school across 4 days each week. Teachers in other subjects may be able to consolidate their teaching time together and so have fewer days on site. Additionally, if they are willing to teach a limited number of year groups, they may be able to reduce their role even further. For example, a science teacher was able to create a one-day-per-week pattern by opting to teach only biology to pupils in years 7 to 9.
As a result of this experience in implementing flexible working, as well as a proactive approach to technology, the impact of COVID-19 was less disruptive than it might otherwise have been. The school used Microsoft Teams to deliver remote lessons during lockdown, and was able to support other schools with their virtual provision.
The experience has reaffirmed the headteacher’s view that flexibility enables rather than hinders outstanding teaching. She also believes it has opened up more opportunities for flexible working.
In addition to the case studies noted above, and despite the impact of COVID-19, United Learning is already seeing a range of benefits from their flexible working project, at a trust-wide level.
Schools with high rates of part-time staff are reporting improved retention of talent and more efficient staffing costs, and the teacher turnover rate is declining across the trust as a whole. The trust’s HR business partners also report that the new policy is facilitating more positive and constructive outcomes for flexible working requests across all schools.
High Hazels Academy headteacher Asma Maqsood-Shah says,
"Despite previously being anti-flexible working, I am now a passionate advocate. It has made such a difference to retention and morale and, ultimately, to the children."
Additionally, the gender pay gap for United Learning Academy schools is reducing, and analysis by the trust suggests that greater flexible working for school leaders and teachers is a factor. Data from United Learning’s Gender Pay Gap Report 2019 suggests that there is a correlation between the reduction in the pay gap and an increase in flexible working in the workforce overall, for teachers and for women in senior roles.
The trust has put in place a range of mechanisms to continue sharing learnings and good practice, including case studies, a dedicated information area on the intranet, and training for HR business partners and school HR staff. A new recruitment and retention best practice handbook is currently in development.
Case study 2: White Meadows Primary School
White Meadows has used flexible working to recruit and keep high-calibre staff, supporting their path from special measures to a good Ofsted rating.
White Meadows is a 3-form entry community primary school based in Littlehampton, in one of the most deprived parts of West Sussex. The infant and junior schools were amalgamated in 2011, at which point they were both in special measures. It currently has just under 100 teaching and support staff.
While the shortage of teaching staff has been a national issue for many years, recruitment and retention is more difficult for schools in deprived areas. Additionally, a legacy of being in special measures makes the situation more difficult, even when a school is starting to improve. This is a challenge which the leaders at White Meadows have sought to tackle through their flexible working strategy.
Changing the culture
Over the last 8 years, leaders at White Meadows have used flexible working to attract and keep a group of passionate, resilient teachers who relish the challenges of their roles and are prepared to go the extra mile to support their pupils.
The drive for flexible working was initially led by the school’s headteacher (now its executive head), who set out to create a culture in which people’s lives did not take second place to their jobs. In practice, this meant taking the approach that they would try to accommodate flexible working requests, for whatever reason.
How they fulfilled this promise
Leading from the top
The school’s leadership team openly champions flexible working, the current headteacher worked a 4-day week in her previous role as the school’s deputy headteacher. As a result, staff are confident that they can be honest about their need for flexible working.
Taking a proactive approach
Staff who are due to take maternity leave are asked about their return plans before they go, giving the school time to work out the best way to accommodate their wishes. Flexible staff are celebrated, not tolerated. Candidates are told about the flexible approach during their tours of the school.
Taking time and care with job design
Leaders work hard to match part-time roles and partnerships with staff needs and personalities, as well as the needs of pupils.
Championing the benefits
Leaders are open about how the school benefits from flexible working. For example, they are positive with staff and parents about how job shares provide a ‘fresh’ teacher part-way through the week, as well as providing some pupils with a mid-week chance to start again. As a result, parents are generally supportive.
Making the most of staff members’ outside interests
One part-time teacher runs the education unit in a local museum for the rest of her working week. The school has built strong links with the museum as a result and asked the teacher to use her experience to write the school’s history curriculum.
Being flexible about flexible working
Leaders are careful not to assume that staff will work outside of their part-time arrangements, for example, if staff attend inset days on their scheduled day off, they are given the time back. Staff are allocated 3 days personal leave to allow them to attend their own children’s school events or take care of other personal priorities.
Impact of coronavirus (COVID-19)
Leaders have noted a number of ways in which COVID-19 has changed working practices for the better.
As the school is part of a national academy trust (Reach2), leaders and staff were previously required to travel around the country for trust-wide meetings. These have been moved online, which benefits both staff and budgets, and will hopefully continue to some degree.
The school has embraced technology during lockdown, using a platform called SeeSaw to set work and engage with pupils (for example, posting videos of the nursery teacher reading stories online). They will continue to use SeeSaw to set homework and believe this technology could also support teachers’ ability to work remotely in the future.
The school’s positive approach to flexible working means that it is no longer seen as something just for staff members who are parents, and has resulted in a number of interesting developments. For example:
- there are currently 3 job share partnerships, including the year 1 team leaders
- a number of staff work part-time in a role designed to cover colleagues’ planning, preparation and assessment time
- 2 year 6 teachers don’t have a class of their own, but instead work a 0.6 contract spread across 5 mornings, taking smaller groups, set by ability, for further stretch and challenge
- 2 higher-level teaching assistants are working part-time while they study for university degrees
Staff retention has increased, with the number of leavers dropping from 16 in 2015 to 8 in 2018 and just 3 in 2019. Anecdotally, the improved well-being of the staff body has also been noted.
Headteacher Rebecca Misselbrook says,
"Teachers and school support staff tend to be caring, family-oriented, values-driven people, they wouldn’t choose this profession otherwise. So it’s important that school leaders allow them to provide the same care and attention for their own families and personal lives as they do for their pupils. Flexible working allows our brilliant staff to balance the challenges of their role with the rest of their lives, and we benefit from this as much as they do. It’s simple, really, if you keep your staff happy, they will stay."
The above article was written and released by The Department for Education on the 12th of May 2021, on the following sources: Case study one, Case study two.
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