Mummy knows best

As a teacher you offer the finest care and education, and as a mother you think your methods are best. So handing your child over to someone else while you return to work is challenging, as Biddy Passmore discovers

Teachers spend their working lives looking after other people's children.

But, while they are teaching, who's taking care of theirs? It is relatively easy for teachers to work once their children are old enough to attend school full-time - although dropping off and picking up can be a challenge.

Teaching when you are a mum can be an altogether different matter. Knowing what you know about child development and coping with the products of child-rearing, ranging from the ideal to the chaotic, is a particularly knotty problem for teachers.

The new teacher-mother faces many dilemmas. Should she go back to work soon - if at all? Part-time or full-time? If she opts for group daycare, will her child be neglected? If she goes for a childminder, will her child be safe and stimulated in a strange home? Can she afford to share a nanny with a friend?

But what if she chooses to stay at home until the child is ready for full-time school? The child may turn out as gifted as Picasso, as bright as Marie Curie and as well-balanced as, er, Jonny Wilkinson. The mother, however, may go mad or broke, or both. And the break will mean, at best, a delayed climb up the career ladder. Thirty years ago, most teachers stopped teaching after the birth of their first child and did not return until the youngest was of school age, if at all.

Since then, feminism and the growing need for two incomes to meet rising house prices have combined to persuade more teacher-mothers back to work.

Teachers are most likely to be married to other teachers, and across swathes of the country - the whole of the South of England - the average house is beyond the reach of a couple on a single teacher's salary. So, the trend is for teachers to return to work sooner.

A Government-funded study of the work patterns of women employees found that more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of teachers with babies born between September 2000 and December 2001 were back at work within nine to 10 months. Half of those appeared to be working full-time - that is, more than 30 hours a week. These figures were higher than for all women employees although below those for highly educated women in top jobs.

For a growing number of women teachers, relying on a friend or grandparent to hold the fort while they are teaching is not enough. They need to be able to rely on full-time care, either in their home, with a childminder or at a day nursery.

Some are lucky enough to have daycare provided at their own or a neighbouring school. At Goddard Park Primary, Swindon, a Sure Start children's centre offers daycare to school staff and teachers at other schools.

Teachers are given a discount of 30 per cent on the fees, which are pound;150 a week for children under two and pound;140 for older ones. This is all part of Swindon's strategy to encourage teachers to work in the borough, which contains some of the worst deprivation in south-west England. Rachael Palmer was already teaching in Swindon when her son, Jack, was born 17 months ago. But the prospect of on-the-spot care was enough to persuade her to move to Goddard Park Primary from her secondary school elsewhere in the borough.

Since last September, she has been teaching full-time at Goddard Park and Jack has been in full-time daycare on the same site. "I didn't want to carry on full-time after Jack was born but I had to financially," says Rachael. "I was anxious about daycare but I feel much more comfortable knowing he is a minute's walk from my classroom. In fact, he took to nursery quite easily and is enjoying it." When her second child is born in November, Rachael plans to go part-time.

For Emma Leigh-Bennett, who was promoted from assistant to deputy head of nearby Churchfields Secondary just after she'd given birth to her first child, Piers (now four), the opening of the children's centre at Goddard Park was a godsend.

"My maternity leave was short - eight weeks for Piers and eight weeks for Megan, who is 14 months younger," she says. "The main reason was that I'm the main bread-winner - my husband is a freelance writer. But I also love my job, and the school I work in had only just come out of special measures, so keeping the school improvement agenda moving was a major factor."

When Emma went to see the centre at Goddard Park, then housed in a pre-fabricated building rather than the purpose-built structure that opened later, she was so impressed by the staff that she knew her hunt for childcare was over. Piers became the centre's first pupil even though he could barely crawl.

Now Piers and Megan spend at least two full days a week there, from 8am to 6pm, and Emma's husband takes charge the rest of the week. Emma is fortunate to have a partner who can take some of the strain. "Five days a week in daycare is a lot for young children," she says.

For Fiona Jackson, who trained as a nursery nurse and worked as a nanny before becoming a primary teacher, a home setting is vital for her daughter and son, now seven and five.

"If I had the money, I would have had a nanny," she says. "But I didn't, so I opted for a childminder. I interviewed three on a list provided by Brighton Council and found Carol Catterall. She'd trained as a nursery nurse long before she became a childminder and she's been absolutely fantastic, doing just what I'd do with them.

"I returned to teaching at Balfour Junior School seven months after my daughter, Tallulah, was born. I went back full-time, mainly for financial reasons, but also because it seemed the right thing to do. I enjoy being a teacher and I didn't want to just stay at home.

"After Gillespie was born, I wanted to spend more time with them so I went part-time. Now I have the best of both worlds: four days at home and three days at school. I drop them off at Carol's, which is less than half a mile from the school."

Rebecca Summer, from north London, has also opted for a childminder for her son Zack, to enable her to teach ICT two days a week at the Kerem School, a private primary.

She returned to teaching when Zack was one. "I had a look at day nurseries and didn't like them, she says.

"They looked really institutional and the babies just seemed to be lying there, amusing themselves. There was one I liked but you had to put down your child's name at birth.

"I was reluctant to pick a childminder from a list so I went for personal recommendation and struck lucky.

"I had full confidence in her straight away. Zack was a bit tearful to begin with - that's to be expected - but now when I drop him off he says: 'OK Mummy, goodbye' and shuts the door on me."

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