The pandemic has worsened factors that were already holding women back from leadership positions, writes Sharon Monaghan, but it has also created a chance for real change

A report published by Dr Helen Kelly last November made for bleak reading about the pandemic’s effect on school leaders. Of the 721 surveyed, 70 per cent said there had been times in 2020 when they’d come close to breaking point, and 67 per cent admitted their working life was having a negative impact on their health.

But while the experience of the past year has been incredibly challenging for everyone in schools, it is women in the workforce I am particularly concerned about. In my role supporting female teachers hoping to land SLT posts, I hear first-hand about what prevents them from applying. And I’m hearing a lot more than usual.

Inequality between the sexes in teaching predates Covid, of course. This is reflected in gender pay gaps, but also in the number of women in SLT. According to the DfE’s 2021 school workforce census, while women make up 75 per cent of classroom teachers, they make up only 67 per cent of headteachers. “This has been consistent over time,” says the DfE.

My work is a bid to narrow that gap. But there is now a worrying trend among my clients: passionate, experienced women who would be an asset to any SLT are not applying for the senior posts they’d previously sought.

A common reason is burnout  ̶  and not just their own. One client told me, “My headteacher is close to a breakdown. She’s overwhelmed. I look at her and think, ‘Why do I want to apply for a job if I’m going to end up like that?’.” I’ve heard that sentiment echoed too many times to count.

For some, the turbulence of the past year has made them question the competence of their school’s leadership  ̶  to react to changing government guidance, to create plans for the ebb and flow of restrictions and to support their staff’s wellbeing. Of course, they also question the DfE’s commitment and ability to make these policy priorities.

The workload and gender equality agendas are intertwined, and both have suffered

Then there is the age-old juggle of motherhood and work commitments, brought into sharp relief in the past year by the experience of trying to manage their own children’s home learning while providing remote learning and/or onsite learning with high levels of staff absence. Months with little or no quality time with the people they care about and neglecting their own wellbeing have caused them to reevaluate their ambitions. Some will only consider jobs nearer to home. Others are questioning not only whether an SLT role would damage their family life, but whether teaching is the right career for them at all.

And those who do want to push ahead have seen a dramatic decline in the number of jobs available. A report by Gatsby, SchoolDash and Teacher Tapp tracked the number of job adverts posted by schools from September 2, 2019 until April 6, 2020. Compared with the same period the previous year, there were 2,000 fewer vacancy advertisements. The report suggests that the continued uncertainty may cause teachers to choose to stay in their roles “rather than seek[ing] promotions or careers in other sectors”. By implication, those with SLT ambitions will find fewer vacancies to step into.

An update to that report is due, so we will soon find out more about the pandemic’s impact on the workforce. In the meantime, one thing is clear: not enough was done pre-pandemic to ensure the teaching workforce – and especially women within it – had the resilience to take the disruption in its stride. The workload and gender equality agendas are intertwined, and both have suffered.

What was – and is – required is nothing short of a culture change. And that might be the silver lining from the whole episode. Flexible working, a focus on wellbeing and capitalising on the workload reduction efforts the pandemic has forced schools to undertake will become expectations.

Unless schools and the DfE are ready to embrace that new culture, they will be depriving the system of bright new leaders as more and more women vote with their feet.