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Workingmums.co.uk speaks to Mandy Coalter, a leading HR consultant, about the benefits of term-time working.
A recent workingmums.co.uk survey shows that, asked what their preferred way of hybrid/flexible working in the future would be, 46% of parents say term-time working. Remote working tops the list followed by school hours which is just slightly ahead of term-time working.
The figures demonstrate how much time with their children is the thing parents value most and possibly how difficult they find covering childcare in the holidays. Could term-time working be used more extensively by employers outside the education sector, given the summer months are often the least busy times for many sectors? And how does it work best?
We spoke to Mandy Coalter, an experienced and award-winning HR Director in both the education sector and beyond. She is director of Talent Architects, an HR consultancy in the education sector, and author of Talent Architects: How to make your school a great place to work.
Mandy has been working term time for the whole of her son’s primary school years, having worked compressed hours before he started school. At the time, she was director of HR at United Learning, an education group running scores of independent and academy schools in the UK. Reviewing her working pattern, Mandy decided that having one day at home without her son didn’t make sense. She was thinking of going part time, but her deputy suggested term-time working. Several of her colleagues in her HR team were working term time and United Learning is in the education sector where term time working is common and where term time is obviously the busiest time. She knew that if she went part time she would feel the need to work on her non-working days when things got very hectic. Term-time working fit the rhythm of the business, she says.
She spoke to her boss and offered to come in for a couple of weeks during the summer holidays as she knew August could often be quite busy as schools prepare for the autumn. She calls it a term time plus pattern and says many people in the sector work in this way. Her boss agreed straight away and Mandy adds that the CEO of United Learning is also very supportive of flexible working.
Mandy, who was on Timewise Power List for part-time workers after starting her new work pattern, says it wasn’t a huge change as she had been taking unpaid parental leave in some of the holidays before that. Her salary was paid across the year and, while there was some reduction in pay, it was not substantial and she gained hugely in terms of the quality of time she had with her son.
Mandy left United Learning in August 2019 to set up on her own with Talent Architects. The move came after she published her book and was contacted by many people in the sector about her work. Her reputation was building and at the same time United Learning was growing and she faced a significant commute to work. Mandy, who had become a single mother in the intervening years, decided she wanted more control over how and where she worked. She was also excited by the challenge of setting up her own business. United Learning were very supportive and she continued to work with them on a 12-month contract which saw her through the first months of Covid when strategic work was overtaken by day to day operational issues. Those 12 months gave her time to build the business and she realises how lucky she was to have that support.
One of the advantages of having less strategic work during the first lockdown while she was building clients was that Mandy had more time to homeschool her son. By the second lockdown things had changed and balancing work and homeschooling was more of a challenge.
At Talent Architects, Mandy has continued to work term time plus as it fits her clients. There is less work in the summer holidays and she uses the time she does work to catch up on research, writing and meetings. She has also been able to manage her hours better so she can now work school hours, although this is changing again as her son is at secondary school. “I’ve been really lucky,” she says.
Mandy is very keen to promote the benefits of term time working and took part in Timewise’s part-time pioneers programme in 2019 to promote term-time working. She says the term-time model is often missing from discussions about flexible working when it is something that might work well for many parents, and may be better for them than the part-time model.
Mandy has also been working on a national project to promote more flexible working in schools and is passionate about the work she does with pioneering head teachers to make more flexible hours available for teachers. Often, she says, it is more about giving a little bit of flexibility so teachers can go to their own child’s nativity play, for example, that makes all the difference. That comes down to talking to people and finding out what will work for them. “It’s not just about part-time working. It can be about the small things,” she says.
In terms of best practice around term-time and flexible working, Mandy says it’s all about consulting staff about how they want to work, creating a dialogue and setting expectations rather than taking an ad hoc approach. Employers need to be proactive, she says, and create a culture where everyone feels they can have conversations about flexible working, however it might work best for them, and where expectations can be managed. “Lots of employers find it scary and challenging to change their culture, but if they break it down and take it step by step it makes it easier,” she states. That avoids resentment and arguments about precedents being set or everyone wanting the same day off. Managers also need training so they are more confident in handling those conversations, for instance, if someone asks for term-time working and that would present operational problems, could a term time plus arrangement work? That might work for both parties – saving schools money in quiet periods when they don’t need as many people while giving employees more time to rest and spend on life outside work.
Operationally, there may be issues around pay. In many cases, term-time workers are paid across the year so they get a regular income. In schools there can be an issue with support staff only being paid for the term-time hours they work while teachers get paid a flat salary. Mandy says it’s important to ensure that all staff feel valued and to be aware of the legislation relating to term-time working. Legally, though, there can be a bit of confusion around term-time working because it can be unclear if term-time workers come under full- or part-time rules [with the latter providing extra protection], given many term-time workers work full time for most of the year. Recent clarification on term-time workers’ holiday has therefore been welcomed by many.
Of course, term-time working might not work for all sectors or all jobs. In some industries, the holiday period is the busiest time. But increasingly the school holidays – particularly the summer and Christmas – are the quieter periods with many people being away or offices being closed. “It has to suit the rhythm of the business, but it could be used more and should be added to the mix,” says Mandy.
For her family personally, it has been a huge boon. She says: “My son has massively benefitted. When I am with him I can focus on him. We have had special summer holidays together and I have been able to really switch off.”
While many many associate term-time working with education, it can be used in many more sectors, depending on peak times of business. So how can employers use it most effectively? Here are some tips: