Great expectations

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Having a baby can be a great joy, but find out first what maternity leave entails or you could endure sleepless nights for other reasons, writes Janet Murray

Finding out you're going to be a parent is the happiest news you're ever likely to hear. But before you get too engrossed in maternity catalogues, check out your pay and leave entitlement because it can be a minefield. The regulations are littered with acronyms and caveats that make it a nightmare to understand fully.

A woman is legally entitled to maternity provision. There are two types so you choose whichever is the most advantageous: either statutory (usually, the bare minimum) or occupational (usually the best option if you have been in a job for a year). But explaining it all requires you to hang on to your cerebral matter.

A woman who is working under the Burgundy Book (local education authority) conditions of service and has done a year or more of continuous service by the 11th week before her expected week of childbirth - are you still with us? - is entitled to the full whack: four weeks at full pay, two weeks at 90 per cent pay, 12 weeks at half pay plus statutory maternity pay (pound;100 per week, but rising to pound;102.80 from April 4), eight weeks'

statutory maternity pay, and 26 weeks of unpaid leave. This gives you a total maternity leave of 52 weeks.

Rebecca Cutts is a primary school teacher from Kent. She is in the sixth month of her maternity leave. With more than three years' service at her school, she qualifies for full occupational maternity entitlement. But it's still a jolt.

"I've noticed the difference," she says. "After a few months, I saw a shortfall of several hundred pounds. In the last few months, I've been paid pound;400 a month, which has hit us hard. Now we're in the unpaid maternity phase, it's going to be a struggle. My partner is on a reasonable salary so we'll get by, but I hate to think how single parents manage."

But it's not just lone parents who struggle. Mortgage and other financial commitments mean that couples can find it just as tough. Paula Smith, deputy head at a primary school in Luton, was also eligible for the full occupational maternity entitlement, but she and her husband had to re-mortgage their house for her to take advantage of her six months' unpaid maternity leave.

She planned to return full-time, but has since decided on less. "It's hoped we can organise some kind of job-share with a senior member of staff," she explains. "I want to spend time with my daughter, but I've been a deputy head for more than three years and I don't want to waste that experience. A woman shouldn't have to compromise her professional standing when she becomes a parent. It wouldn't happen to a man, would it?"

Her experience highlights women's ability to change their minds about returning once parenthood becomes a reality. For this reason, Maree Day, of the NASUWT teaching union, advises women to keep their options open.

"We deal with many enquiries from pregnant women uncertain whether they want to return to work," says Ms Day. "We always advise them to proceed as if they are planning to return in order to take full advantage of their entitlements."

To do this, women must return to work for 13 weeks after their maternity leave has ended. This is 13 weeks under your normal contract, which means adhering to normal notice periods. If you decide to return part-time, you must work for the equivalent of 13 full-time weeks. If you decide not to return, you have to pay back the 12 weeks' half-pay you received part-way through your maternity leave.

Women can return to work at any point during their maternity leave but must inform their employer in writing at least 28 days beforehand. You cannot work as a supply teacher while on maternity leave or will be treated as having returned to work.

Ms Cutts points out that timing your return is crucial. "You have to consider what would be the least disruptive to you and your classes," she says. "I'm very much aware that if I go back in mid-term, I could have a struggle on my hands. I'm trying to time my return for the beginning of a holiday, so I can get into school for a few days to prepare for a new term or half-term."

Those who really suffer financially are women who have been in their jobs only a short time. Teachers with more than 26 weeks but less than one year's continuous service by the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth will receive only the statutory entitlement: six weeks' pay at 90 per cent of their salary, 20 weeks' statutory maternity pay and 26 weeks' unpaid maternity leave.

Choosing statutory provision can work to your advantage. Women with fewer than 26 weeks' continuous service might be better off because they can qualify 15 weeks before their baby is due - four weeks earlier than under the Burgundy Book conditions. For example, a teacher with fewer than 26 weeks' continuous service by the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth will receive 26 weeks' ordinary maternity leave - and be able to claim maternity allowance (pound;100 a week) from her local benefits agency if she has been in employment for at least 26 of the 66 weeks ending with the week before her baby is due.

Fathers, too, have a statutory entitlement - as do those adopting (see websites below). Men get two weeks' paid paternity leave at the rate of pound;100 per week. To qualify, they must have 26 weeks' continuous service by the 15th week before the due date and the leave must be taken within 56 days of the baby's birth. Many employers offer some paternity leave on full pay - you should receive whichever is the most advantageous.

David McMahon, headteacher at Five Bridges in south London, a mixed secondary school for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties, took paternity leave last year after the birth of his first child. "It wasn't long enough, but like many teachers, I wasn't in the position to take more," he says.

Becoming a parent is a shock, involving a huge change of lifestyle, and employers need to recognise that. Ironically, some schools are not very family friendly. "It's a headache to organise cover for maternity leave or create a part-time post to suit a new mum, but retention of good staff is crucial," says Mr McMahon. "In the long run, it's far costlier to recruit a new teacher than to go that extra mile to support existing staff.

Headteachers shouldn't lose sight of that."

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