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The benefits of supporting job breaks

The days when Miss became Mrs, left to have a baby and never returned, are long gone. So it is of vital importance that women taking a break from the workplace find out as much as possible about their rights.

But even then you can come unstuck. When Debbie Smith from Knowsley was on maternity leave, a change of head brought a new culture and leadership style to her school. When she returned, there were new policies and new curriculum work to get used to, along with coping with a baby.

A woman who has been away from work for some time may be faced with enormous change on returning, yet there is little advice and support available. The danger is that many good teachers may not be able to cope with returning, which is damaging to women and to schools.

The Local Government Management Board Survey of Teacher Resignations and Recruitment 1985-95 shows that in 1995 0.4 per cent of local education authority full-time teachers resigned for maternity reasons. Of new recruits, 0.8 per cent of full-time and 10. 3 per cent of part-time teachers appointed were returning from a break for family reasons. In the primary sector women returned through their 20s to 50s. In secondary more women returned during their 30s and none over 50, indicating perhaps that the primary sector is more family-friendly.

Department for Education and Employment statistics show that a career break has a detrimental affect on promotion prospects. Women teachers who have had a break fare worst in the promotion stakes at the crucial stage of 10 to 15 years' service. Male deputy heads with this length of service at secondary level are four times more likely to be promoted to heads as women who had a break in service. Overall, women with a break do less well than either women without a break or men in getting to deputy level. At primary headship level the differences are now marginal, possibly because the age profile in teaching is changing.

There are now fewer older and younger teachers; nearly half of all teachers are in their forties. Ten years ago 60 per cent of women teachers were under 40; now 43 per cent are. It may be that as education is changing so fast, women who reintegrate quickly will be less at a disadvantage than in the past.

The Equal Opportunit ies Commission guidance notes on maternity arrangements recommend that employers keep records, such as how many women resign

during pregnancy, maternity leave or after a return to work, the reasons,and the cost to the organisation of this loss of staff. The commission also asks employers to consider whether the culture is hostile to women during and after pregnancy.

Many employers do offer a maternity advice pack and most schools are aware of practical rights and arrangements, but it is the support and preparatio n for return that is often ignored. Arrangements made to enable women to keep in touch while away and training or skills updating on return are usually informal. Informal support when back at work, such as parental leave if there is a breakdown in usual childcare, would also be useful for men who may have the same or shared commitment but who can face even greater resistance from management in trying to balance home and work.

Merseyside's Fair Play Consortium has produced a booklet, Family Friendly Policies Good Practice, which explains different forms of flexible working and shows the benefits to both employer and employee of supportive policies. For example, job share or part-time work can have advantages for the employer if the flexibility allows greater concentration in busy periods, retains experience and encourages loyalty and quality work. Part time may mean term time, a set number of days per week or fortnight, or a number of hours a year.

A spokesman for the National Union of Teachers said that it has no special advice for women returning from a break. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers also has no particular guidance, but official Marjorie Twist was aware that many teachers stay in contact with the school and meet colleagues. She "presumed that schools would send out notices and useful information" but acknowledged that women returners were placed under pressure balancing home and school commitments.

A woman can be made to feel guilty because maternity leave or a career break is seen to be disruptive or inconvenient to the school. LEAs, heads and governors who recognise that staff have family commitments and treat family breaks as a normal and natural part of life are more likely to have loyal and committed staff with greater efficiency and better staff retention. What you and your partner need to find out about * Flexible leave arrangements

* Family leave

* Flexible work times

* Ante-natal time-off

* Maternity leave

* Paternity leave

* Childcare support

* Emergency leave

* Career break schemes

* Job share or part-time work

* Refresher training

* Implications for pensions

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