Skip to main content

I wonder how many of those future school leaders sitting in that hall that day actually had any children

A few years ago, my school sent me on a conference for aspiring leaders. Assembled on the first morning, we listened to the introductory lecture. In 15 years' time, we were told, most of us would be headteachers. It was a scary thought, not least because at the time I could hardly make it through morning lessons without copious caffeine injections, let alone run a community of more than 1,000 people and balance a budget of millions. I'd long ago given up trying to balance my own bank account, for goodness sake.

Now, sitting at home with my baby and my toddler, I think back. Most of those people probably will be headteachers in 15 years' time, but how many of them will be women? If, like me, many take time off to have a family, will their careers ever catch up? And if, like me, many return to work after having children, will they stay as focused, as determined, as committed, as they were in their child-free years?

Having returned to work for a grand total of 10 weeks between maternity leaves, I had a short taste of life as a working mum. Exhilarating it may be, but easy it ain't. Forcing myself out of bed at some ungodly hour to prepare food for my toddler, lay out his clothes, write convoluted instructions for my childminder and then feed and clothe myself, it felt like I had already completed an entire day before I finally drove through the school gates at 7.30am.

In the years BC (before children), I always conscientiously switched off my mobile during the day. Now it was perched prominently on my desk, and checked 50 times a day for what I was sure would be imminent bad news. My concentration was not what it was. By the end of the day I was exhausted, but had to re-energise in time to go home and engage in constructive play to get over the guilt of having left my little boy for nine hours. The galling thing was that he seemed much happier with me out of the house.

When I burst through the door every afternoon ready for some mother-child affection, he would barely lift his eyes away from the Tweenies, before falling asleep on the carpet. Rushing out of after-school meetings early was a constant source of embarrassment; what head of department doesn't experience more than a twinge of guilt when she is the first to leave in the afternoon, with everyone else still bent studiously over their desks?

It's hardly the trailblazing example of efficiency that I'm sure is expected of a future school leader. In fact, I wonder how many of those future school leaders sitting in that hall that day actually had any children. Collapsing into bed every night, I'd wonder whether having one child and another on the way automatically barred you from the hallowed territory inhabited by education's rising stars. The way I was feeling, I'd have had a hard job successfully applying for the role of future school cleaner.

I loved going back to work and it was definitely the right decision for me and my child. But sometimes I look at the next 10 years of my career and, rather than the smooth progression up the pay scale that I used to imagine, it suddenly seems a winding and often treacherous path full of compromises, sleepless nights, and guilt on every front. Do men experience this sudden change when they have children? Being a future school leader was always a pipe dream for me anyway, but now that I have two children, it seems to be vanishing even further into the mists of what might have been. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.

Gemma Warren is on maternity leave from her post as head of inclusion at a London secondary school. Email:

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

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