Case Studies

United Learning - 'A Trust wide approach to Flexible Working'

United Learning ' Best practice across the Trust'


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. The Trust’s ethos can be summed up as seeking ‘the best in everyone’, including ‘supporting colleagues to achieve excellence… in the interests of young people everywhere.’

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.

The number of teachers in the profession remains high, as does the level of trainee teacher recruitment. However, there is more to do in recruiting and retaining high quality teachers, particularly for subjects where graduates are in high demand. United Learning is determined to tackle this head-on, at a Trust-wide level. 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 two-stage project.

Examples of good practice in United Learning schools

High Hazels Academy

High Hazels Academy, a primary school based 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, CPD, succession planning and, critically, 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 two-way feedback around everything the school does, so that the SLT can be clear about the impact on staff.

As a result of the new approach, the annual staff survey indicated that engagement has gone from 68% in 2017 to 89% in 2019, and staff turnover has reduced significantly, as have recruitment costs. 50% of the senior leadership team now work part-time, as do 40% of teachers across Key Stage 1.  Only two years ago, the school needed to recruit between six and eight teachers a year; in 2020 just two new teachers have been needed. 

Shoreham Academy

Faced with a high proportion of teaching staff who were approaching retirement, the SLT at Shoreham Academy took a proactive approach. Staff who were considering stepping down were given the option to formally retire, and then return on a part-time basis. This has allowed 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. Informal flexibility is also treated positively, with staff members willing and able to cover for each other when needed. 34% of teachers now work part-time.

From September 2020, the school’s Vice Principal will be working three days per week, passing on some responsibilities to the Assistant Principal, which 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; timetabling software is used to build their contracts around that. 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 four 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; a Science teacher was able to create a one-day-per-week pattern by opting to teach only Biology to students in years 7-9. 

As a result of this experience in 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 you do not need to be in the building to be an outstanding teacher. It will also, she believes, open up more opportunities for flexible working.

Why flexible working?

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 ‘win-win’ outcomes for flexible working requests across all schools.

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. 

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 & Retention’ best practice handbook is currently in development.

The view from the Headteacher 

“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.” Asma Maqsood-Shah, Headteacher, High Hazels Academy

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