Fears have been raised that schools are discriminating against pregnant teachers by classing pregnancy-related sickness as ordinary sickness and using it against them in promotion or disciplinary matters.
One former teacher has told Tes how she quit her job following what she felt was an unfair disciplinary warning from her school during her pregnancy.
She had been off work for six weeks, prior to going on maternity leave, after maternal anaemia left her hospitalised and needing an iron infusion.
The former secondary school English teacher, 34, from Essex, said: “A few months after I came back to work, I had a day off sick, and I was pulled in the next day and told my absence record over the past three years had been really bad, so I told them they were counting my pregnancy absence and that they weren’t allowed to do that. I was so angry."
Pregnant teachers' rights
Teacher maternity rights campaigners have called for research to uncover the extent of any such school discrimination against pregnant teachers.
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The former English teacher said she believed discrimination was “very common” because senior leaders weren't aware of human resources law.
She added: “Prior to being pregnant, I had practically never been off sick. On the day I left, I went to the head and said, 'I’m leaving because of this,' and he was really sorry. But nothing has changed in that school because my friend who still teaches there is now having the same problem."
A spokesperson for the Working Families charity, which provides free legal advice to parents on their rights at work, said schools would be breaching Section 18 of the Equality Act 2010 if they counted maternity absence as ordinary absence.
She said: “Our reasoning is, when you fall pregnant, for the period of pregnancy and for the whole period of maternity leave, you are in what is known as 'the protected period'.
“If the employer decided to take account of the pregnancy-related sickness for the purpose of considering attendance, for example, in a redundancy or performance-management process, or for any kind of benefit, such treatment would be discriminatory.
"In these circumstances, the pregnancy-related sickness should be discounted.”
A spokesperson for the campaign group Pregnant then Screwed said its members had suffered similar problems.
The Maternity Teacher/Paternity Teacher support and campaign group added: “It’s difficult to say how, and the extent to which, female teachers are discriminated against when they become pregnant because there’s very little research or data for this demographic that pertains specifically to the education system.
"Whilst anecdotal evidence may highlight unjust treatment for some, real research is required to understand whether issues like maternity sickness are being deliberately used to discriminate or disadvantage expectant mothers.
"An investigation into maternity discrimination in schools – which would include forced early starts to maternity leave, unfair pay and conditions related to maternity sickness, or discriminatory comments or actions based on pregnancy-related health – would be a hugely powerful way for the Department for Education to better understand how this demographic is being affected by pregnancy-related prejudices or misinformation.”
The NEU teaching union has highlighted an error relating to pregnancy-related absence in the Burgundy Book, which outlines conditions of service for teachers in England and Wales, and could be contributing to the problem.
The book states: “Absence on account of illness which is attributable to the pregnancy, including absence on account of miscarriage, and which occurs outside the period of absence for maternity, shall be treated as ordinary absence on sick leave and shall be subject to the conditions normally governing such leave, provided it is covered by a doctor’s statement.”
NEU deputy general secretary Amanda Brown said the book predated the Equalities Act. But she added that schools did not now apply that part of the Burgundy Book because they instead used the up-to-date law.
An NEU spokesperson added: “It would be incredibly foolish and open to legal challenge if an employer decided to discipline a pregnant employee who was undergoing a difficult pregnancy and was, unfortunately, having to take time off. Such a challenge could be made under pregnancy, maternity and sex discrimination.”
The Department for Education has been contacted for a comment.