In a recent Primary School Management article, Sarah Hardy cited a collection of essays published in 2016 by Policy Exchange.
The document states that 27% of the teachers leaving state education each year are women aged 30-39, and goes on to assume a link between this figure and maternity leave.
This, coupled with findings by the Institute for Fiscal Studies regarding the gender pay gap – which suggest that women’s salaries dip significantly after the birth of their second child – paints a bleak picture for staff retention in an industry dominated by women.
But there is good news. Perhaps because an overwhelming majority of primary teaching staff are women (almost 85%, according to the DfE), primary schools appear to be doing more than secondary schools to create family-friendly working environments for staff when they return to work after maternity leave.
Yet the ways in which school leaders can support and empower members of staff during parental leave is relatively unexplored territory.
If managed badly, it can result in a detrimental and frustrating career gap for valuable teachers.
This is delicate terrain, but the first step is to ensure there are role models at all levels for parent staff within your organisation.
How many of your SLT are parents? Better yet, how many are mothers? What proportion of your senior or middle leaders work job shares, or part time hours? How many of your trainees have completed their qualifications around the demands of a family? How many of your parents on leave are invited into school to introduce their babies?
Conversely, are fathers confident with your shared parental leave policy, and do they feel that this could be a beneficial step for them and their families? Is the policy known to the rest of your staff?
Even in schools with such staffing arrangements in place, teachers without children can remain unaware of them.
In her acclaimed book Lean In, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandburg, says this can result in some women ‘Leaving before they leave’ – that is, deciding that their present career is incompatible with their parenting aspirations, even before they’re pregnant.
Demonstrating to staff that deciding to become a parent won’t impact on their career aspirations, backed up by workplace role models, can send a powerful message.
Coaching and communication
The second step is to communicate with expectant parents about their changing priorities, but without projecting any of your own assumptions or expectations onto the individual.
Since primary teachers spend all their time with one class, handing the children over to their maternity or paternity cover can be emotionally fraught – feelings that can be further exacerbated by the significant identity shift represented by becoming a parent.
Combined with the day-to-day demands of teaching, managing the handover, antenatal appointments and managing finances, it’s understandable that some teachers might welcome the time and space to talk with someone who listens supportively and without judgement.
A coaching model provides teachers with a safe space in which to explore their thoughts, and can be incredibly empowering.
They may choose to focus on what they plan to do during their period of leave, their personal or professional worries, or ask about colleagues who have been through the same process.
Whatever the conversation involves, sensitivity and confidentiality is vital. It’s important not to hold teachers to anything they might have decided on in these sessions, since the arrival of a new baby can change everything.
With that in mind, clarify with the member of staff how they would prefer to stay in contact during their parental leave.
Some might want to be shut off from school entirely; others might be champing at the bit to return for Keeping In Touch days and CPD opportunities.
On KIT days, whether it be via email or in person, encourage new parents to talk about what they’ve done while on leave, and don’t be surprised if they have lots of ideas or CPD experiences to share.
For some new parents, parental leave is the perfect opportunity to catch up on reading, do some networking and pursue professional and personal goals that otherwise might get sidelined in the daily hustle and bustle of teaching.
Think creatively about how your staff might continue to be involved with school life during this time, if they wish – but always allow your new parent to take the lead in deciding on the level of commitment that suits them and their new baby.
HR and management
Your school’s HR manager needs to be confident with the legalities surrounding parental leave and keep their training updated.
There are various practical and logistical arrangements that must be adhered to by law, including risk assessments, time off for antenatal appointments and appropriate spaces to express, as well as suggested ‘best practices’, which include mutually agreed KIT days.
In addition to that, a series of new laws introduced over the last few years now ensure greater equality for fathers, adoptive parents and same sex couples.
Despite these new initiatives, however, research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development indicates that only 5% of fathers have taken up their right to shared parental leave.
It’s not uncommon for expectant fathers to be completely in the dark concerning this entitlement. An informed and proactive HR manager can therefore be an empowering force for parents seeking more equal ways of balancing their family and career commitments.
Yet for all the laws we now have that are intended to protect new parents, it will often be a school’s culture that most affects a teacher’s experience of becoming a new parent in relation to their career.
The statistics across all employment sectors are depressing – three quarters of pregnant women still experience some form of maternity discrimination within the workplace, and 54,000 women lose their jobs each year due to pregnancy – almost double the figure of 2005.
Training in parental leave shouldn’t be restricted to HR managers, but extended to line managers and middle leaders.
After all, these are the people who’ll often have the most frequent contact with teaching staff and the biggest impact on their day to day well-being at school.
Anecdotally, it’s also those same middle leaders and senior colleagues that can create the kind of workplace culture the aforementioned legal measures are designed to tackle – and they can be a big part of the reason why many new parents either return to the classroom or decide to leave altogether.
Maternity/paternity tips for leaders
- Celebrate role models
- Communicate with expectant parents
- Offer coaching to expectant parents
- Provide training for HR staff and line managers
- Value the experience of parental leave
- Treat all parents equally
Emma Sheppard is a lead practitioner in English and founder of the The Maternity Teacher Paternity Teacher Project (MTPT), which seeks to inspire, empower and connect teachers choosing to complete CPD whilst on parental leave.
Lucy Starbuck Braidley is a primary school teacher and subject leader for English and art.