What ‘flexible working’ actually means and how it can be beneficial to the education sector, from Emma Turner.

Flexible working is having somewhat of a moment, both in education and across other sectors. The responses to the Coronavirus pandemic, which forced many to work in completely different ways, have shone the light of potential on all aspects of flexible working.

Correcting a common misconception

For too long, flexible working has been seen as the preserve of those returning from maternity leave or has been viewed as only for roles in schools at a certain level of responsibility. Indeed, when I am asked to speak about flexible working, I often begin by saying, “I am a mother of three small children, and I work flexibly.” This sentence is often heard as not containing an “and” but instead, a “so”. There remains a stubborn hangover of associating flexible working with part time and more often with maternity leave and parenting.

Lessons learnt from the pandemic

However, what the pandemic has taught us is that flexible working has the potential to enrich and support the professional development and wellbeing of all workers within our sector. Both those who wish to work full time and those who want to work part time. It is a myth that flex is part-time. Flex is for all employees and involves moving away from the full time 9-5 default thinking. Flex is thinking differently about three aspects: when, where and how much you will work.

That is:

  • When you will complete the work which might be decided by your employers and be set hours or may be for the employee to manage and decide, and therefore be outside traditional working hours.
  • Where you will complete it, be that within the organisation’s own buildings or at home or elsewhere.
  • How much you will be working, be that full time or part time.

There is therefore scope for exploring many different models of working within education to blend the three aspects. The DfE also has three new headings within its own definitions of flexible working (see diagram below) to encourage thinking more widely about the possibilities of flexible working.

"Part Time Working - Part Time, Job Share, Phased Retirement. Varied Hours - Staggered hours, Compressed hours, Annualised hours. In Year Flexibility - Lieu time, Personal or family days, Home or remote working."

DfE definitions of flexible working (2021)

Why is flexible working important?

But why is flexible working so important and why is it seemingly suddenly on many people’s radars? I have long been an advocate for flex in education. In the 24 years of my career to date, I have worked flexibly for 14 of them. These 14 years include multiple roles including co-headship, leadership roles across a MAT, deputy and assistant headship, as well as class teacher. I have worked flexibly both full and part time, and both before and after I had my three children. I have therefore long recognised the transformative power flexible working has on recruitment, retention and career progression.

Supporting female staff

After retirees, the biggest demographic to leave the profession are women aged between 31 and 40. If we put to one side that this demographic are women and look instead at the wealth of experienced teachers, current and future leaders we are losing within this bracket, then it seems nonsensical not to explore more ways in which to retain this wealth of talent and experience. People do not leave a profession for which they have trained for many years on a whim. Many leave because they feel they cannot blend the demands of a role with the wider aspects of their lives. And education is way behind other sectors in offering colleagues different ways in which to work. For women, 26.2% work flexibly within education compared to 42% in the wider world of work. Flexible working may not be the recruitment and retention silver bullet, but we simply cannot ignore that there is more on offer and a wider range of possibilities in sectors other than our own.

Creating diverse organisations

Flexible working can also help to ensure that our organisations and our leadership teams are representative and diverse. If we only offer full-time on-site roles within our organisations or leadership structures, then we are potentially precluding all those who are unable to work in that pattern from applying. This precluded group may contain colleagues with parenting or caring commitments, colleagues with their own health challenges, colleagues who wish to undertake additional study, or blend their work as multiple part time roles within the sector, or who wish to also work in other sectors such as within a charity, family business or their own education consultancy work. The more we insist on a full-time on-site default, the more we are shutting down the field of applicants. It is interesting to note that for those positions where flexible working is offered, there are an average of 74% more applicants – the sector is hungry for flex. It is also well accepted that more diverse teams are more productive, creative and effective but if our recruitment and employment structures fail to invite a wide range of colleagues into all positions in our organisations, then we are not only disadvantaging large swathes of our workforce, but we are also missing out on potential.

Improving retention in leadership roles

Having worked in co-headship for many years, and more recently in my work across a MAT, I have seen the effect flex has had on retaining key staff, continuing to develop leaders and to set a positive precedent for career progression. For too long, leadership roles have been seen as not open to flexible working and this has meant that those who wish to work flexibly are prevented from applying or leading. By offering flexibility in leadership not only does it serve to retain and develop talent but enables other organisations and colleagues to see that things can be done differently and therefore encourages the ongoing evolution of the profession.

Time for a shake-up

If the pandemic has taught us anything about flex, it is that there is nothing which we can’t now have on the flexi table.

Colleagues across the sector have worked in new and innovative ways at the drop of a hat, adapting everything from remote delivery, changes to assessments and exams, online CPD and new ways of conducting parents’ evenings and reports. This shake-up is an ideal time to reassess what worked, what we want to keep and to shine that light of potential into the future.

We are currently losing talent year on year at an alarming rate. We can therefore do what we’ve always done and get what we’ve always got, or we can look at things differently.

Let’s talk about flex.


  • Emma Turner

    Emma has worked in primary education for 24 years. She is currently research and CPD lead at Discovery Trust and is the founder of #NewEd. She has also written two books, ‘Let’s Talk about Flex’ and ‘Be More Toddler.’

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