Flexible and part-time working: a practical guide

Flexible working may sound like a good solution to recruitment and retention challenges, but how do you make it work? Liz Murray looks at perceived barriers, benefits and examples from practice

Author details

Liz Murray has worked in education for 20 years, as an accredited advanced skills teacher, pastoral and curriculum leader, SENCO and assistant headteacher. She has worked across the mainstream and independent sectors. She is also the founder of...

The DfE's Teacher recruitment and retention strategy firmly prioritises the need for a rethink of approach to flexible working across the profession. The report recognises that school cultures need to shift to enable this and that school leaders must lead the way in demonstrating positive attitudes to part-time and flexible working* roles.

A glance at the Power Part Timer's awards demonstrates how successful part-time working is across many industries for men and women at all stages of their career. But the education sector is lagging behind.

The DfE has been advocating a more flexible approach for a while. 

The Government also understands that teachers, like any other professional, should be able to do their job without sacrificing a family life or compromising their well-being...We want to support schools to deploy all their staff effectively and efficiently, and develop a diverse workforce strategy which supports flexible working. (Flexible working in schools, DfE, 2017)

But opportunities for flexible working are still not available, and this lack of flexibility is impacting on the teacher supply crisis. According to the Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England 2018 report:

  • the proportion of full-time teachers in their 50s decreased from 23% to 17% between 2010 and 2016 as many left prior to retirement
  • 20% of full-time secondary teachers leaving the profession went on to take up part-time work in a different profession.

So what's stopping more flexible working in schools?

Changing attitudes: from barriers to benefits

Some of the perceived barriers to flexible working may in fact give rise to benefits, as the table below illustrates.

Perceived barriers Potential benefits
Staff will be less committed. Increased loyalty. Employees often feel a greater commitment to supportive schools for accommodating a flexible working situation.
Staff will be less efficient. Increased productivity. In Vodafone's Flexible: friend or foe survey, 83% of respondents reported increased productivity as a result of flexible working patterns.
Staff will be less effective. Increased creativity. Time away from work (whether spent caring for family or purusing other interests) gives the opportunity for reflection and generation of ideas, which come to fruition when teaching.
It will lead to split classes and timetabling difficulties. Increased collaboration and better value. It might be a challenge to timetable, but there are solutions. A common flexible arrangement is a job share. When this arrangement is thoughtfully structured, the school benefits from teachers collaborating to discuss their pupils’ needs, resulting in better pupil outcomes. Two brains are better than one!

Practicalities: possible structures and considerations

Flexible working arrangements can be effective in school, with careful planning and monitoring. The follow examples highlight some key areas for consideration.

Primary job share

There are many successful job shares in the primary sector where teachers share a class. Helen, an experienced primary teacher with a successful job share, explains the factors which make it work.

Overlap is essential. There is a cost implication to the school, but it means there is proper handover. The ratio of the job share is important too! When I worked four days with somebody covering Friday, I was essentially responsible for everything and the Friday was just a cover person. I now do three and a half days with another person doing two days. We have an hour together Thursday morning. One teacher does lead more than another and as I teach the beginning of the week and more days it is me, but I then have another session of PPA. It is generous of the school but as I do more planning and assessments, they are happy that I have the same PPA as a full-time member of staff.

But what about more senior roles? Helen's experience of a previous part-time role was more challenging.

I was a phase leader on a 0.6 contract. I was in class but covering PPA time. I had some tricky staff that I managed and working Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday didn't work. We were in RI and lots of initiatives were being put in place and whether right or wrong, change needed to happen quickly. I would come back in on a Monday and the staff had not done what was expected of them. I changed my days to Monday, Tuesday, Thursday which made managing staff much easier.

My question was always whether my management TLR should be paid in full rather than 0.6. I led the same number of staff, parents and governors meetings as the full-time phase leaders but my TLR was paid on a part-time basis.

Helen’s story illuminates the need to consider context and structure carefully.

  • Is there time for overlap if a job share?
  • How will the role work in practice?  Are some working days of the week preferable to others?
  • Is the role remunerated to reflect the responsibility and workload?

Secondary job share

It is easy to dismiss a job share in secondary, but it can be a very good option. Karen is a secondary English teacher.

I work three days a week and have done for the last four years.  I usually share classes with another teacher/s, and this requires flexibility and communication. Each year there are timetabling challenges. For example, one year I needed to change my days off to fit with the option blocks. I was happy to do this as I had been involved in early discussions and understood the context. Another year we couldn’t make it work as there were two part-time teachers in the department, so we had to split a GCSE class. 

This was initially seen as a problem, but we talked it through and found a positive solution. I saw the group for three lessons and the other teacher had just one session. I focused on the main literature text-based work and the other teacher did English language work. As we kept to a routine, the students knew what to expect. We worked to our strengths and they got a brilliant deal. We committed to teaching the group for two years and I knew that I might have to change my day off in the second year, but this was fine as I knew that in advance.

Middle and senior leadership positions

I'm currently sharing a SENCO role. As with Karen's experience, this provides a genuine advantage for our learners. The role requires specialist knowledge and as my colleague and I have different specialisms, we serve our cohort of students and their needs better than we could alone. We both have time to pursue other professional opportunities which then add further value to the work that we do in school.

But whether part-time colleagues can hold positions of responsbility still seems to be a thorny issue, with some schools not allowing it at all.

In the context of budget cuts, some schools have allowed middle and senior leaders to work part-time hours to save on staffing costs – but without reducing the role. For example, Sian, an assistant headteacher, works four days a week.

I work four days per week and am not timetabled to teach on a Thursday. However, I still fulfil my leadership responsibility in its entirety. For me, the part time hours give flexibility to be able to take my children to school one day a week, but I also take a pay cut and always work on my day off. I love my job but feel as though I am being pulled in too many directions and am considering leaving the profession for better paid part time work.

Schools must think about how to support leaders like Sian. For example:

  • provide a deputy or a clear point of contact for days off
  • balance the need to reduce staffing costs against what’s in the staff member’s best interests
  • give another member of staff additional responsibility to take on an aspect of the leader's workload.

Jane, head of maths at a secondary school, explains how careful consideration has made her role work. 

I am a successful head of maths with a great track record. After the birth of my second child, I wanted to return to work part-time but didn’t want to step down from my subject leader role. I was fortunate to have a great headteacher who was keen to make it work in practice. We discussed the challenges of the arrangement in terms of the entire workload rather than just thinking about the day that I would not be in school.

We decided to ask the assistant head of maths not only to ‘act up’ on my day off, but to also take on some clear responsibilities that would normally be mine alone. He was rewarded financially and given an additional PPA period to compensate for this. It works well because my workload is pro rata'd as well as my salary. Then it’s up to me to be disciplined enough not to turn on the computer on my day off!

Top tips for making flexible working work

  • Ensure regular and open communication. Carve out time for job sharers to discuss their role.
  • Review part-time or flexible working arrangements regularly. Ask how things are working and be solutions-focused if issues arise. 
  • Create clarity with a written plan of how the role will work in practice, building in additional support from the workforce if necessary. Consider the whole role, not just time offsite.
  • Consider timing for meetings so that as many staff can attend as possible to keep everyone in the loop.
  • Create a positive culture around flexible working. Be respectful of non-working days and look for the positives and celebrate them when they happen.

For more advice on making flexible working work in your school, have a listen to the Optimus wellbeing podcast.

References and related reading

*Note re terminology: part-time working is a form of flexible working; other forms of flexible working include job sharing, compressed hours and working from home.

Last Updated: 
21 Jan 2020