Making teaching more family friendly talks to Emma Sheppard of the Maternity Teacher Paternity Teacher Project which works with schools and teachers to encourage a greater understanding of the barriers facing parents, especially mums, when they return to work.

Teaching for working mums


Teaching sometimes seems, from an outsider’s perspective, to be the perfect family-friendly job – particularly at this time of year. School hours, long summer holidays, a chance to develop your first-hand knowledge of children, right? The problem is that the reality often doesn’t match what might look good on paper.

Often teachers face huge workloads and some head teachers, struggling with daily turbulence, are resistant to flexible working. The result is many mums dropping out of teaching positions. Figures show, for instance, that, when split by gender, women aged 30-39 are the largest group of teachers leaving their jobs every year – 2,000 more than women aged 40-49.

So what can be done about it?

That’s where the MTPT [Maternity Teacher Paternity Teacher] Project comes in. The project, which focuses on practical help, research and continuing development, is run by a community of teachers who are keen to ensure teachers don’t drop out or see their careers stagnate after having children. 

It was founded by Emma Sheppard, a Teach First ambassador who has 12 years experience as an English Teacher, Lead Practitioner and teacher training leader and mentor. Emma went on maternity leave in 2016, but found that, although she returned full of ambition, that period of leave detrimentally affected her career progression in a way that didn’t seem to happen to dads. She thought about blogging and doing some professional development during her leave and started meeting up for coffee with friends to discuss ‘big ideas’. She blogged about the motherhood penalty, teacher retention and other maternity-related issues, with an education focus.

She then did some research and found that, although there was a lot of talk about wellbeing and work for teachers, no-one seemed to be looking at the impact of pregnancy and parental leave on the sector. Together with others who felt passionately about the issue, she set up the MTPT Project, which now has over 10K followers on Twitter and 800 on instagram as well as 400 paid up members. It provides not just coaching for teachers who are parents and workshops for schools around return to work [for line managers] so that they are aware of the challenges, but also does its own research on women teachers aged 30-39, many of whom will be affected by pregnancy and maternity issues and the career impact of these. These include not being able to move to more senior roles at further away schools because they are the main carer for their children. 

Gender pay gap

Emma says the issues covered include ones where there are ‘quick wins’ as well as others are ones where the challenges are more systemic, such as childcare costs, equal parental leave issues and teacher workload. The aim is to look at how much motherhood is a factor in holding back women and contributing to the gender pay gap in education, which stands at 18% due, in large part, to the fact that women are heavily represented in the lower rungs of education and less so in senior management. Despite making up two thirds of employees in the sector, only 40% of head teachers are women. Emma points out that the gender pay gap widens as women enter the 30-39 age group. “Mid career stagnation is especially bad in education,” she says, adding that this is in part due to the low professional self-worth of teachers compared to other industries.

Emma says: “On the surface teaching is the most family friendly profession.” Yet, she adds, systemic failures mean there is little room for manoeuvre – teachers have to get to work at 7.30am, have to work in the evenings, at weekends and during the holidays and have very little flexibility because head teachers are so busy firefighting that many just don’t have the headspace to think more strategically and consider flexible working solutions – despite the fact that these could stop many teachers from leaving their jobs.

The project offers coaching packages around parental leave, return to work, transition [for parents of one to five year olds], group coaching [which can be more affordable] and accreditation for continuing professional development around new babies. It also hosts virtual networking coffee mornings.

An epiphany

It works with ‘warm’ schools who are interested in doing things differently and realise that they have a problem with retention of women after they start families. Some offer the workshops as part of inset days to get more teachers to attend. Emma says that, even so, attendees are sometimes surprised to find out more about things like pregnancy and maternity discrimination, about unpaid parental leave and about how women often get paid pro rata for teaching and learning responsibilities which are not reduced when they work part time. “It is often an epiphany for warm audiences,” she states.

By engaging with warm audiences, the project hopes to bring in those who are more resistant. “The idea is that they see that all the good schools are doing these things so they should consider them,” says Emma, who points out that it makes sense all round to retain experienced teachers who can mentor younger colleagues as that can relieve some of the pressure on stressed-out leadership teams. The project receives some funding from the Department for Education which is very welcome, but Emma recognises that the DfE can be a large and slow machine and that it can take time for any changes to trickle through the system. That is why, she says, it needs projects such as the MTPT one which has its ear to the ground.

Emma adds that she would like to see much more investment in combating the barriers faced by working mums, particularly those in female-dominated sectors like education, because the lack of it is holding back the economy and leading to women leaving the public sector and going into other related jobs, often in the private sector. Emma is a case in point. She is 35, but has moved out of the British state system to France where her partner is from and where there is more investment in childcare.

But she has far from given up the fight for women in education. The MTPT project is focusing for now on building its social media presence and on its new return to work workshops for teachers who are just about to return after maternity leave.  It is also targeting multi-academy trusts, subject specific bodies and unions when it comes to coaching and inset workshops. If you are interested you can sign up to their newsletter here.

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