Double act

In the first of a new series, Wendy Wallace talks to women about the strains of returning to work after maternity leave

Four-year-old James Glass has been on three introductory visits to the infant school he will start attending this autumn, but his mother hasn't been along once. One of those uninterested, unsupportive parents whom the Government hopes to rope in through home-school contracts? No. Thirty-one-year-old Jackie Glass is a teacher, and couldn't get the time off last term. "I didn't ask," she said. "Teachers aren't allowed to have time off."

The teaching profession is dominated, numerically at least, by women. Many go into it because they believe that the school day and holidays will be compatible with having children of their own. But how family-friendly are schools as employers? Do heads and governors, in the name of other children, ask too much of teachers who also have their own children to consider?

Jackie Glass teaches a class of nine and 10-year-olds at Harton Junior School in South Shields. Committed and rarely off sick, she co-ordinates information technology and design technology at the school, is involved in the National Union of Teachers, and serves as a school governor.

She is also mother to James and his younger brother, Harry, now aged almost one. When her first child was born, she took a six-month maternity leave before going back to school and leaving the baby with her mother. "At first it was quite nice to go back to work," she says. "It was a bit of a relief. But it does get more difficult. You have all the guilt about being away from the child, and the work commitments start piling up. And with two children it's much more difficult."

Teaching and parenting are hugely demanding jobs. To do both, particularly in the early years, is exhausting. Jackie Glass gets up between six and seven in the morning during term time and "falls into bed" at around 11 at night, usually without having had a minute to herself during the day. Once her older son is asleep at nine she sits down to a couple of hours marking or preparation. She has given up the keep-fit classes she used to enjoy and never goes to the cinema or out with friends.

"I haven't got any time," she says. "None whatsoever. I've worked hard for my career and I want to try and get the best out of it, as well as motherhood. But it is hard when immediately you get home from work you have to put a different hat on and start making meals and playing games."

While colleagues who have been through the experience may be sympathetic, in most schools this doesn't extend into any adjustment of the workload of women returners, or other practical forms of support. "The main difficulty is that there's no real allowance made for you," says Jackie Glass. "You're still expected to do as much as ever, even with after-school activities and training courses. I think that's unfair. Nowadays the pressures are much more on teachers to do the extras and if you leave at four you're frowned upon, and you frown upon yourself. But it does sometimes cause conflict with my husband, because he thinks I spend too much time doing the extras."

Although the issues tend to be less pronounced for men - who at least don't contemplate rushing home in the lunchbreak to breastfeed - they too can feel compromised in their parental role by the demands of the teaching one. Some schools do try to help. Chris Taylor, head of The Hills Lower School in Bedfordshire, allows her staff to go to their children's school functions.

"Things like sports day and special assemblies or Christmas productions - if at all possible I'd let them attend," she says, "because I always appreciated that when my daughter was little. And I try to be understanding when children are poorly as well." Chris Taylor's daughter is now 27, but she still remembers being a class teacher back at work after maternity leave.

Female heads are not necessarily more sympathetic to new mothers. Ruby Jameson (not her real name) was 33 when she had her first baby, and teaching at a home counties primary. When she went back her son was five-months-old and her husband had gone away to work after being made redundant from his local job. Ruby Jameson feels her son suffered.

"I used to pick him up from the childminder, go home, and try to get him to bed quickly so I could do the work and get things organised for the following day," she says. "He, in effect, took second place to the work, which I hated. But we had a new, female head, who expected more of us than the previous, male head. She didn't have children and was very career-minded. And because she got to work early and stayed till late, she felt everyone else should."

Ruby Jameson - who now has two children under four - was reduced at times to waking her baby up in the night after she had finished her paperwork. "A couple of times I woke him up because I felt so guilty and I wanted to be with him and him to see me calm. Even now I feel I get them home and get them to bed because I've got to do my work."

The British work longer hours than any other European country, says Colette Kelleher of the Daycare Trust. "There is a long-hours culture in the working world in Britain, and it's no different in schools," she says. "Schools as institutions are in the same boat as every other sector. With the whole school system under the microscope, it's a very competitive, pressurised place to work, and that takes a toll on parents and children as well."

The Daycare Trust is calling on employers to adapt to the needs of workers as parents in a number of ways; in private companies cr ches, help in finding childcare, and flexible hours are all becoming more common. Blue chip companies take these measures because they believe they will help them to retain experienced staff. But schools undoubtedly lose valuable staff who believe that they will be unable to combine being a new parent with being a teacher, particularly if they also have management responsibility.

Thirty-five-year-old Jenny Gill gave up a post as deputy head of a Hertfordshire primary school when she had a child. With daughter Ellie now three, Jenny Gill has started to do some supply teaching in her new home area of Northamptonshire. "At the moment I'm not sure when I'll go back to full-time teaching. I wonder how I would deal with the workload. I had high expectations of myself at work, and young children are incredibly demanding and time-consuming. I'm fortunate in being able to make a choice, but it is a financial sacrifice and a career interruption. At the moment, I can't see any solution to it. There isn't any kind of support and I would be particularly worried about being so emotionally worn out that I wouldn't have resources to draw on for Ellie at home."

In a move which should benefit all working parents, Britain has now signed up to the European Social Chapter, under the terms of which both men and women will be entitled to three-months unpaid parental leave. This is likely to be implemented within the next two years, although details are not yet finalised. Childcare is the perennial problem of the working parent and although teachers benefit from sharing the school holidays with their children, term-time poses problems.

Janice Godbehere, a nursery nurse in a West Midlands primary school, has had tremendous difficulties finding someone to take her six-year-old son for an hour before school and an hour afterwards while she gets to and from her job. "At the moment, a friend is looking after him for me," she says. "I was so desperate, I didn't know what to do. There is nothing round here at all - no after-school club, none of the daycare places collect from school, and no childminders that I could find doing the school run. I didn't want to just dump him with anybody but I'm going from day to day because I don't know where to turn next."

While schools would find it difficult to introduce the flexible hours that many companies offer employees, job-sharing is feasible, if still uncommon. Chris Taylor has two job-shares going on among her staff. All four of those involved are women with young children, but job-sharing benefits the school as well as the individuals involved, says Chris Taylor. "Each one has their expertise so I get extra specialised input," she says.

Without exception, teachers The TES spoke to said they enjoyed going back to work after maternity leave and welcomed a return to the adult world of work. Their children benefited financially, and in some cases from the stimulation provided by day care.

But teachers did not enjoy feeling that they had to put work first; few of those working full-time felt that the balance between work and home was right for them or their young children.

Forty-four-year-old Frances Somers Cocks has a 19-month-old son and teaches in a Catholic primary school in south London. She went into teaching from publishing six years ago because she thought the job would be compatible with having a child.

"One reason was the holidays," she says. "It was all extreme advance planning. But I didn't realise when I went in it was so very much not 9 to 3.30."

But despite an accommodating childminder, the strain of a difficult class plus a recent Office for Standards in Education inspection has told on Frances, who is a single parent. She has developed severe eczema on her hands, which she puts down to stress, and often feels guilty about her son. "He's probably going to be my only shot at motherhood," she says.

"I feel I ought to be developing his potential in every way. But I need to water the plants and mark the books.

"The 'Which shall I neglect?' dilemma has been on-going. Whatever you're doing, you feel that perhaps you ought to be doing the other thing."

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