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What could flexible working do for you?

Flexible working is a career choice that is becoming more common for teachers, especially in primary education. But for many teachers, it is still not considered. We spoke to union member and primary school teacher, Rachel Lammas, to find out more about today’s attitudes towards teaching and flexible hours.

Rachel Lammas is a primary school teacher from Peterborough. She worked full time as a teacher for twelve years before deciding to start a family. Now she has come back to work part time, working Monday to Wednesday and sharing her year six class with another part time teacher. This way, Rachel says, out of seven, she can spend four consecutive days a week with her young daughter, while continuing to work in a job that she loves.

For Rachel, going part time after maternity leave was a deal-breaker, but thankfully her school was very supportive. “I’m very lucky with my current school because there are so many teachers who already work part time that it was never an issue,” she says. “I did briefly consider that I may have to look for another job in another school if it was an issue, but thankfully that never came up.”

Flexible working is a career choice that teachers – both primary and secondary, male and female – are starting to adopt. According to a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research, 27% of primary school teachers and 19% of secondary school teachers worked part-time in 2017. The report says there is an ‘unmet demand’ particularly from secondary teachers wanting to reduce or alter their hours, with one in six teachers wanting this option.

Aside from caring for young children like Rachel, there are many reasons why more teachers are considering part-time work, including caring for older relatives, retirement planning, health reasons, to improve their work-life balance or to free up time for other part-time work, study or to pursue other interests. With the number of secondary school pupils in England set to increase by 15% between 2018 and 2025, the NFER says that attracting and retaining enough teachers is ‘a key challenge’ and that changing the conversation around flexible working is one of the ways they intend to do this.

Reaping the benefits of part time

Aside from being able to spend time with her young daughter, Rachel has also noticed additional benefits from working reduced hours: “I feel that I’m much more organised working part time, purely because I only have to plan and organise three days rather than five. Also, while I’m not someone who has struggled with mental health, I definitely feel much more rested, refreshed and raring to go on a Monday compared with when I was working full time. My mood is better and my general attitude towards teaching I think has really benefitted from it.”

Flexible working does come with its challenges, both for teachers and school leaders. Rachel, who has always worked full-time, says she certainly found it difficult to adjust to sharing a class. “There are definitely challenges with working part time and class sharing. It’s lucky that I’m close friends with the teacher I job share with because we have to be extremely communicative. For example, if I’m tackling a maths problem with the class on Wednesday, at the end of the day I have to explain in great detail to the other teacher what it was, where we got to and who was struggling with the work, so she can pick up seamlessly the next day.

“There is also the issue with consistency – I think parents do worry that, particularly for the kids who have learning difficulties or are having personal issues, the lack of a consistent teacher may affect them negatively. If we put a plan in place, I have to remember to pass that on to the other teacher, otherwise there’s a chance that it may be overlooked. However, this is where having a single Teaching Assistant is really brilliant, because they can offer that consistency across the whole week.

“For me, however, the benefits definitely outweigh the problems.”

Adapting to modern demands

With a female-dominated profession primary schools and a growing emphasis on inclusivity and issues with retention, schools have had to adapt to become more flexible over the years. Rachel says: “In such a female heavy profession, you have to expect that there will be some teachers going on maternity leave, who may not want to come back to a full-time role immediately.”

Rachel says that she hadn’t considered the idea of working part time before she decided to start a family, saying, “Honestly, at 18, not having the option to work part time wouldn’t have put me off teaching, but I don’t remember it being brought up or offered by the school.” While some of this, she admits, may have been to do with where she was in life, or her previous school’s policies, she can’t recall many teachers working part time when she first started teaching, and that it has become more common in recent years not just with those with families, but for those who want to pursue other interests or work outside teaching.

What flexible options are there?

According to the Department of Education, while it is the most common, part-time work isn’t the only flexible option available to teachers, especially for those who can’t afford to lose a full-time income. Compressed hours and staggered hours (flexi-time) are listed among the flexible working options – meaning working the same number of hours but either in fewer, longer days or at different times to the usual workday.

Rachel says that she hadn’t heard of either of these options really being used by fellow teachers, possibly because they don’t seem very practical for classroom teachers. “Compressed hours sound exhausting – there’s barely enough time in one day to do everything, let alone cramming five days’ work into four – and schools would still need to pay to cover that extra day. And I can’t see how staggered hours would work in primary schools – the school day has its set hours. Maybe it would work in secondary schools or colleges where teachers have free sessions but not in primary.” Similarly, while working from home is another option listed, Rachel says only non-teaching staff at her school tend to work from home.

Supply teaching is also a flexible option that the DfE cites. Much like freelancing for teachers, it allows teachers to choose – depending on availability – where and for how long they work, and they don’t have to put in extra hours with staff meetings or long-term lesson planning. Rachel says she’d never considered supply teaching a kind of flexible working and admits that it has certain negative connotations. “It’s not something I’d do because I love having my own class and the knowledge that I’m going to be paid regularly, but I can see how it could be a flexible option.”

While Rachel is happy to continue working part time for now, she says she would consider going back full time when her kids have grown up and are in school themselves. “As lovely as being at home is, it’s not very social. I do really like working and having my own class, so I always saw myself going back to work full time eventually. For now, though, I really love it.” What is clear is that all schools must adapt to a future where flexible working options are available to teachers, especially when considering the future retention and wellbeing of their staff.

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Find out more about UIA Mutual insurance for NASUWT members.