Together, let’s shape a more inclusive profession for women

Two new surveys aim to inform a recruitment and retention strategy that targets a particularly vulnerable group of teachers

Two new surveys aim to inform a recruitment and retention strategy that targets a particularly vulnerable group of teachers

29 Apr 2024, 5:00

Like many women, I left teaching when I had children. At that time, reconciling the demands of being a senior leader in a school serving one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country with the responsibilities of motherhood seemed impossible. I think it was the guilt that did it for me in the end; I felt unable to do justice to either role. 

I’d always known that if I could I’d want to try for more than one child. Yet I couldn’t get over how my school would cope with my temporary absence, potentially multiplied. The thought of the disruption to students and the extra workload placed upon my colleagues felt selfish. A clean break, I decided, was in everyone’s best interests. Is this sense of guilt as acute in any other profession?

When I eventually returned to the workforce (though not as a teacher), I realised that I had underestimated the seismic shift that starting a family would cause in my life, which at the time I felt validated my decision.

Any parent who has relied on nurseries knows the turmoil of those first few months: children suddenly falling ill, urgent pick-ups required followed often by two-day exclusions from childcare… It seemed never-ending. Work and life became a perpetual negotiation and juggle between my husband, myself and (when lucky) my mum over who could do what and when.

Working from home offered a work-around for many of these issues, making the chaos slightly more manageable. I had only a few essential in-person commitments each week. Yet I wondered if such flexibility could ever integrate into the more rigid structure of classroom teaching, where each lesson feels critical and the strain of arranging cover falls heavily on already over-stretched colleagues. To me it would have felt unfair to ask. 

But in hindsight, perhaps I misjudged. The intense early stages of parenting do eventually stabilise and life settles into a calmer stream. Perhaps with role models, mentorship and a supportive framework during and after maternity leave, I might have continued teaching. Moreover, had flexible working arrangements been more commonplace, I might have remained in the profession.

Last year, nearly 9,000 women aged 30 to 39 exited the profession

And so while my story is mine alone, I am eager to understand the experiences of others. Women aged 30 to 39 represent the largest demographic leaving the teaching profession annually. Last year alone, nearly 9,000 women in this age group exited the profession. Many of them held over a decade of experience in middle or senior leadership roles.

This significant loss of talent is not being offset by new recruits, with teacher recruitment targets consistently unmet. Addressing the challenges of recruitment and retention is critical and should be a priority for future educational policy. A key element of any strategy to respond to this challenge should be to understand and better support this key demographic.

That’s why as director of The New Britain Project I have teamed up with another former teacher, Emma Sheppard at The MTPT Project. Building on MTPT’s foundational research from 2018, our goal is to investigate the ongoing crisis of attrition and identify policies and support mechanisms that could enable more women in their thirties to sustain their careers in schools.

If you are a woman who left teaching in a UK state school between the ages of 30 and 39, we would appreciate it if you could spend a few minutes sharing your experience through this survey.

Additionally, if you are a female teacher currently working in a UK state school and fall within the same age range, your insights are equally valuable. There’s a survey for you here.

Teaching should be both sustainable and fulfilling. Unfortunately, for too many women, it is currently neither. By listening to those who have left and those who have stayed, we aim to foster changes that make teaching a viable long-term career.

Please, share your story and help us shape the future of the profession.

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  1. Veneice Raeburn

    This article was extremely enlightening and relatable. Likewise, to the reader I feel that I should make a similar decision. However, with the cost of living this makes my predicament more challenging. I really think that there should be better support.