Can I be a headteacher if I have young children?

Is it possible to take on a school-leadership role without a stay-at-home partner to look after your own children, asks Emma Sheppard

Emma Sheppard

Woman attempts to work on computer, while holding toddler on her lap

When Marianne Coleman’s study, Gender and headship in the 21st century, was published, one of the revelations was that, over a 10-year period, it appeared to be easier to be a father and a headteacher than a mother and a headteacher

Coleman surmised that this was, in part, because women bear more “responsibility for the home and for the wellbeing of any children” than men. 

The report was published in 2005 and is now almost two decades old. But a 2015 study from Ambition Institute also confirmed a “motherhood penalty” in school leadership, though it revealed that “dads in school leadership have it tough, too”.

Even in the 21st century, trends around domestic and unpaid labour falling predominantly on women doggedly remain, and have even been exacerbated by the recent homeschooling and childcare demands associated with successive national lockdowns.

Headteachers: a partner to take on the domestic load

If headteachers who are fathers are able to fulfil their role because they have partners at home who are able to take on more of the domestic load – by working flexibly, working in less-demanding jobs or by acting as stay-at-home mothers – does this mean that those headteachers who are mothers have partners who do the same?

This is definitely the case for Lucy Katz, a primary headteacher of two years and mother to children aged eight and 11. Before the pandemic, her husband Jonathan worked part time as a delivery driver, around other roles as an artist and a bike mechanic. He shared the childcare of their daughter during her first year of life, taking on the primary-carer role when Katz returned to work after six months. 

The complications of the pandemic – both in terms of the pressure on Katz as a headteacher managing ever-changing scenarios, and the availability of childcare and key-worker places – meant that they made the decision “very much as a family” for Jonathan to stop working. 

Katz is overwhelmingly grateful that her roles have provided the financial security to make this decision at a time when other families are in difficult situations and have lost their livelihoods. However, while she acknowledges that Jonathan’s working part-time or not at all “has been a huge part” of her ability to progress to and sustain her headship, she points out that balancing full-time headship and motherhood relies on a whole network of family support.

Jonelle Yeoman’s marriage also offers her some flexibility in the care of her two children, aged three and eight. A primary headteacher three years in post, Yeoman is the breadwinner and her husband, Gav, is a firefighter. 

His shift pattern allows a degree of availability for drop-offs and pick-ups, which wouldn’t necessarily be possible in a typical nine-to-five role. And Yeoman ensures that she leads by example to her staff, who are also working parents, by being present for some of the wraparound care each week – a privilege she describes as “wonderful”. 

However, Yeoman explains that the superficial convenience of Gav’s shift pattern is deceptive: timings can be rendered unpredictable by big incidents. And, in fact, Yeoman says that his role makes it trickier for them to balance their personal lives. As a result, organisation between them has to be airtight. 

Like Katz, Yeoman credits the childcare support provided by her mother as a key factor in her ability to balance motherhood and headship. 

The need for a wide network of support

Nicola Noble, co-headteacher at Surrey Square Primary in South London, however, has always had a different set-up. Her husband is a property lawyer who works “long, long hours”, which has proven challenging. Together, they have three children under the age of 10. Noble describes the wraparound care and the rush at the end of the day as “mad”, but proudly celebrates their successes as parents with very demanding roles. 

Over her years as a headteacher, Noble has worked both full-time and on four days as part of numerous co-headships, a model she prefers, as it goes some way towards combating the challenging and lonely nature of the role. 

While Noble feels she is still the primary carer for their children, the birth of their third child, shifts in her husband’s working context and working from home during the school closures have prompted conversations about how to share the domestic load, and “redressed the balance” between them as working parents.

Mariella Ardron, principal of Chelsea Academy in West London, and her husband, Richard, offer a direct comparison between mother and father headteachers. Both are headteachers in large central London academies, as well as being parents to three daughters, aged 10, 14 and 15. 

Data from the 2018 School Leadership report from the Department for Education indicates that men progress to headship three to four years faster than women at both primary and secondary level, but no research has been completed to identify the correlation between this progression gap and motherhood. 

Ardron, however, hardly fits into this category, becoming a principal only a year after her husband. She admits that in the year during which she was a deputy headteacher and Richard was beginning his headship in a free school, she “definitely picked up the slack” at home. 

But, like Katz and Yeoman, she refers to the wide network of support needed to raise a family in today’s busy world: “We had a couple of fantastic au pairs, who lived in and could do the school drop-offs and pick-ups, and be at home if any of the girls were sick. They also helped with the laundry and housework, and sorted the girls’ dinner.” 

Ardron also insists that “the idea of the headteacher working 15-hour days in school is outdated,” explaining that more positive attitudes to flexible working and workload make the job more manageable for those with lives outside of teaching.

Of course, the ability to outsource in this way requires the wage that a headship offers. But what is evident from all four stories is that the stereotypical model of one high-powered professional parent coupled with a stay-at-home partner does not reflect the complex realities of parenting. 

For every example, however, the much-paraded phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child”, does ring true for headteachers – whether that village includes school or childcare set-up, extended family support, or people to whom to outsource domestic tasks.

Emma Sheppard is founder of The MaternityTeacher/PaternityTeacher Projectand a lead practitioner for English

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Emma Sheppard

Emma Sheppard is founder of The MaternityTeacher/PaternityTeacher (MTPT) Project and a lead practitioner for English

Latest stories