Taking return to work from maternity for granted can cost schools talent and women their careers. That’s just not good enough, writes Sean Duffy

Imagine you’ve been working at the same school for ten years. You’ve been following the same strict routines day in, day out. Through practice and ongoing professional development, you’ve honed your skills: for teaching, of course, but also data analysis, exam preparation, managing staff, managing behaviour, pastoral care and much more besides.

You’ve come to know the school and its community. You’ve formed rapport with parents and senior leaders and more than once you’ve contributed to developing policy. You’ve progressed to middle leadership and you are on track for the next step up.  

Then one day, you have to take a year off. For the next 12 months, you’ll be developing a host of new skills in an entirely unknown arena: parenthood. That’s scary enough, but you also face the fear of what happens when you come back. In a year’s time, how rusty will your professional skills be? How much of your professional knowledge will be irrelevant?

Of course, a large proportion of the teaching workforce don’t have to imagine this at all, while another substantial segment are making life decisions every day based on those fears – trying to time their family planning according to their career trajectories. 

Meanwhile, men are over-represented in senior leadership teams. And given the above, it’s not surprising. There’s a vicious cycle that leads to women’s exclusion from the top spots. How can we properly empathise with them? And if we can’t, then how can we properly support them? And if we can’t, then how can we ever make leadership more representative?

Teachers are making life decisions every day based on these fears

There’s a simple question of retention too. How many colleagues are lost to the profession because we fail to reintegrate them? How many choose part-time work because the demands of full-time teaching are incompatible with family life?  

I get the irony that I’m a man writing this, but in the end it’s the duty of those who are in leadership positions now to effect change, and I take that duty seriously. As a young teacher, I found myself supporting a female colleague – far more senior than I – who I found crying in the school gym while her class waited outside to be let in. This was her second day back from maternity leave.  

That experience has stayed with me and now that I’m in a position to do something about it, I’m determined to create conditions where that is as unlikely as possible to happen again. So I set about consulting with my female colleagues about their experiences to try to develop better policy.  

A key challenge that arose from all my colleagues was adapting to change. A lot happens in the time it takes for a baby to become a toddler. One told me that she felt well supported on the whole. She appreciated our focus on her aspirations and our efforts to ensure she wasn’t overworked. But, she said, our re-introduction wasn’t transitional enough. A two-week period to observe and take partial lessons, she suggested, would have made a world of difference to her ability to process all the changes.  

When we made that change, another returning colleague confirmed that “being given time to facilitate in lessons before taking them on solely has been particularly helpful”.

A second key theme was being able to plan ahead. “Having a secure timetable in place maybe three or four weeks in advance of returning would have made the transition much less stressful,” said one. We always planned for the first day back to be a settling-in day, but we realised we needed to do more, and sooner.

So we are making the changes, and we are continually reflecting on what more we can do. Law and protocol ensure our female colleagues are protected around maternity leave, but we can’t hide behind that to avoid action. In themselves, law and protocol are insufficient.

There is no silver bullet, but we owe it to ourselves, our colleagues, their families and students to do better than that.

After all, imagine our system in ten years if we stopped losing all that talent and experience.