'Career success mustn't cost teachers their home lives'

We have to get better at thinking about childcare, parental leave, compassionate leave and career breaks, says Libby Nicholas

work-life balance

When Theresa May stood outside Downing Street last month and finally announced her intention to step down, she gave a speech that many described as among her finest. In what must have been an excruciatingly emotional situation, her voice cracked towards the end. However, she held her head high and walked back into Number 10. And then – apparently – the assembled media corps laughed.

There’s nothing new about politics being a tough contact sport where, despite the protestations of the lead players, playing the man rather than the ball is par for the course. But what have we become, when openly mocking someone’s emotional anguish is OK? 

Being a leader – a good leader – is hard. Being a female leader can be even harder. If you are unemotional, you are cold. If you show any flicker of humanity, you are hysterical. I wasn’t there, but I’m pretty confident that the press pack didn’t cackle when David Cameron hummed a little ditty as he strode back into Downing Street after his own resignation speech. 

We’d like to think these stereotypes don’t exist in education, but they do. If we are truly a profession that is about developing and nurturing people – about human flourishing – why are we so bad at it when it comes to adults? Teachers are leaving the profession hand over fist and nothing seems to stem the flow. How did it get to this?

Recognising the humanity

There is no easy answer – pressure; workload; a focus on data rather than people. The reasons are too numerous to count, but one commonality is the fundamental question of how we care for each other. How we recognise the humanity in the profession. How we properly acknowledge that we are mothers, we are fathers, we are daughters, sons, carers, grandchildren. We are the nose-wipers, we are the bed-changers, we are the family taxi service, we are the shoulder to cry on, and the arms that defend and comfort when things go wrong. We are human.

And yet we seem to have forgotten that in education. With so many colleagues leaving the profession, we need to think again – quite fundamentally – about how we need to do things differently.

Two years ago, I wrote an article about the pressing need to change attitudes and behaviours in education to help nurture the next generation of female leaders. I made the point that too many women in senior positions in education are still having to choose. Sometimes whether to have children at all, other times – as I did then – only to have one child. These are choices that no one should have to make, and yet, while we are certainly seeing more women in senior positions, that has often come at a very high personal cost.

The impossible child

But things can change. And they have for me – I am just three weeks away from having my second child, something that two years ago I had decided was not going to be a possibility. This is all highly personal, but I think it’s really important to speak out if we are ever to see a change in the sector. The bottom line is that we have to get better at finding ways to be more flexible and to honour home life. How many women are lost to our profession because of the rigidity of our school structure? The default of “this is how things have always been done” just doesn’t have any flex in it to recognise family life or other personal commitments.

We have to get better at this – better at thinking about childcare, better at thinking about parental leave, better at thinking about compassionate leave, better at thinking about career breaks. But not only thinking: we then need to actually do something. Because it is only then that we will get the best out of people – the best of them as professionals and the best of them as humans.

Investing in human capital

I have been chief executive of Astrea since January 2016. From a standing start, three and a bit years later, there are 27 academies in our family, and I am delighted to say we have a 100 per cent record in Ofsted inspections, with all schools that were previously failing demonstrably improving – often moving from “inadequate” to “good”. Our results are equally impressive: at key stage 2, they are four times the national average improvement, and we expect to build on this again this summer.

These outcomes have been hard-won. They have not been achieved at any cost – which far too often means a human cost, whether of pupils or staff. Our achievements are there because we are investing in human capital – investing in our staff and our people, and in trying to walk the talk of an approach that is all about human flourishing – our pupils and our staff.

I am incredibly proud of what we have collectively achieved at Astrea. I will be enjoying time with my new baby – something that seemed impossible just a few short years ago – safe in the knowledge that the organisation is built on rock-solid foundations. And when you have those rock-solid foundations, built on love, on care, on nurture, you can start walking the talk on flexing the organisation to the people, not flexing the people to the organisation.

Libby Nicholas is chief executive of Astrea Academy Trust

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