October 2018


  • Renewed optimism
    New terms always begin with a mood of optimism, says Geoff Barton. Even when we worry about results, about looming inspection or about setting achievable budgets and plugging unforeseen staffing gaps, there's something that makes education distinctively upbeat each September. More
  • Cuts - The real impact
    Following his open letter to the Secretary of State for Education, ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton surveys the impact of funding cuts, highlighting examples from around England of how diminished budgets are chipping away at the very fabric of education. More
  • Best of both worlds
    Positioning teaching as a global profession could have a positive impact on the current teacher supply crisis, both at home and abroad, says Dr Fiona Rogers from the Council of British International Schools (COBIS). More
  • Girl power
    Former teachers Charly Young and Becca Dean founded The Girls' Network with a mission to inspire and empower girls from the least-advantaged communities and help them achieve their goals. Here, Charly explains how the network is helping to change the lives of thousands of girls across the country. More
  • A flexible approach
    Could flexible working provide a major boost in helping to retain teachers? Jack Worth, Lead Economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), looks at their latest findings and says school leaders and teachers need to work together on this. More
  • Double act
    Having survived their first year as Co-Headteachers of The Holt School in Wokingham, Anne Kennedy and Katie Pearce reflect on one year in post in this unusual but not completely untested model of headship. More
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Could flexible working provide a major boost in helping to retain teachers? Jack Worth, Lead Economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), looks at their latest findings and says school leaders and teachers need to work together on this.

A flexible approach

Teacher recruitment and retention is a significant challenge for leaders, particularly in secondary schools where increasing numbers of pupils are forecast to enter the sector over the coming decade. Attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is a challenge that is likely to grow over the coming years, but it is fundamental in delivering a high-quality education for pupils. Therefore, schools need to ensure that they are an attractive place for teachers to work, develop and progress throughout their careers.

Extensive NFER research on the teacher workforce in England has shown that increasing part-time and flexible working opportunities for teachers is likely to encourage more teachers to stay in the profession and may help to attract new entrants, particularly teachers returning to the profession. Flexible working is one of the key features of the government’s recruitment and retention strategy, which is currently being developed. Schools can also take proactive action by becoming more flexible employers.

The prospect of large numbers of full-time teachers moving to part-time does present a risk to staffing levels, because changes to working patterns would reduce overall full-time equivalent (FTE) staffing. However, our research identifies three key reasons why more and better part-time and flexible working may outweigh the short-term costs in terms of staffing levels and improve teacher retention, and is worth pursuing for the long-term benefits.

1. There is unmet demand for part-time working in the secondary sector, which drives some teachers to leave.

The proportion of secondary teachers working part-time has increased slightly from 17% in 2010 to 19% in 2017. However, primary schools have a significantly higher proportion of part-time teachers compared to secondary schools: 27% in 2017. Part of the primary–secondary gap is explained by there being more female teachers in primary schools, who are more likely than male teachers to work part-time in both sectors. Our research shows that a big part of this gap persists even after accounting for differences in the gender distribution (https://tinyurl.com/y78san7w). This suggests that there is unmet demand for part-time working among secondary school teachers.

Our research also shows that many secondary teachers who leave teaching for another job switch from full-time to part-time work (https://tinyurl.com/y8tzmbk7). Among secondary teachers who leave for another job, the proportion working part-time rises by 20 percentage points after leaving, which suggests that this unmet demand for part-time work is partly driving some secondary teachers to leave the profession. More flexible working opportunities may have encouraged some of these leavers to stay.

2. Part-time working needs to be a more sustainable option for teachers and schools.

The latest teacher retention data shows that the rate of leaving the profession among part-time teachers (13% in 2017) is higher than among full-time teachers (9%). Our research finds that the difference in leaving rates between part-time and full-time teachers is greater in secondary schools (https://tinyurl.com/y78san7w), which may indicate that part-time teachers in secondary schools find it more difficult to sustain the demands of part-time working alongside their other responsibilities outside of work (for example, childcare, or caring for a relative). Improving retention of part-time teachers would help to ensure that success in accommodating more part-time working for those who want it, leads to sustained retention in the profession.

3. Lack of flexibility is a barrier to potential returners.

Not only is the relative inflexibility of secondary schools having a negative impact on leaving rates, but it is also creating a barrier to re-entry for secondary teachers who wish to return to teaching. Our recent evaluation of the Return to Teaching pilot (https://tinyurl.com/ydbgb56l) identified a lack of part-time and flexible working opportunities as one of the main barriers facing secondary teachers who want to return to the profession. This barrier was particularly cited by career breakers, a group of potential returners that otherwise had the greatest potential to make a successful return with minimal support.

Over the longer term, by better accommodating teachers who want to work part-time when they need this flexibility, leaders can help to keep them within the profession and these teachers may return to working full-time in the future. Keeping such teachers in teaching retains their expertise and reduces the risk of losing them from the profession permanently.

What can schools do to become more flexible employers?

As it has important potential benefits for recruitment and retention, becoming a more flexible employer is likely to be beneficial for schools. However, doing so may mean overcoming barriers to becoming more flexible and managing the additional challenge of a more flexible workforce alongside delivering a high-quality education for pupils.

NFER research commissioned by the DfE (https://tinyurl.com/y76xcjup) shows that about two-thirds of senior leaders perceive that the complexity of timetabling is the most significant barrier to agreeing part-time or flexible working patterns for teachers. Given the complexity of school timetabling, teachers themselves can also help to enable more flexible working by being flexible on what arrangements they are willing to accept. The challenge faced by leaders of ensuring the school is fully staffed at all times, should be respected by teachers who would like part-time work: not all part-time teachers can have Fridays off. Nonetheless, there may be ways of reforming timetabling to build and embed flexible working patterns into the process.

The evidence base on what works for schools in making part-time and flexible working opportunities more available is quite limited. Identifying and sharing existing best practice, to provide schools with effective strategies for promoting part-time and flexible working, is crucial for understanding what can be done to make flexible working more available to teachers who want it. However, large-scale evidence on best practice is unlikely to materialise in the short-term.

If you want to improve your flexibility offer in the short-term, it could be worthwhile exploring how other schools have managed to overcome barriers to flexible working, such as timetabling, cost and promoting a culture that encourages flexible working. The latest teacher workforce data shows that almost a quarter of secondary schools have a proportion of part-time teachers that is above 30%, well above the average of about 19%. These are likely to be schools that the sector can learn most from and there is likely to be one near you (which you can check using the information in this spreadsheet https://tinyurl.com/y7kgqlfa).

Find out more

For more on NFER’s research on the teacher workforce in England visit https://www.nfer.ac.uk/key-topics-expertise/school-workforce

Jack Worth
Senior Economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)