Women eschew headship

18th April 2008 at 01:00
Research finds talented female teachers are likely to choose less all-consuming career paths

Research finds talented female teachers are likely to choose less all-consuming career paths

Headship is no longer the ultimate goal for go-getting women teachers in Wales, new research suggests.

According to Olwen McNamara, professor of teacher education and development at Manchester University, talented women teachers are more likely to branch off into jobs that suit their lifestyles of choice.

Professor McNamara, co-author of the report Women Teachers' Careers, released last month, found there was a lower proportion of female teachers in Wales (64 per cent) than in England (71 per cent) and Scotland (75 per cent), making for fairer representation of the sexes in the classroom.

But women are still under-represented in the top jobs: they hold just over half of headteacher posts, says the research, commissioned by the NASUWT teachers' union.

"We need to think differently about how we manage women's careers," said Professor McNamara. "Leadership of a school should be representative of a workforce and about getting the most able people into leadership. But evidence tells us women ambitious for promotion no longer see themselves as heads - there are other career paths."

Helene Mansfield, head of Croesyceiliog School in Cwmbran, agreed that a new generation of capable women want top jobs but have different expectations.

"Some women may not wish to go for a post which is seen as time-consuming and all-absorbing, and they may still have children of school age," she said. "There are other paths - advisory service, consultancy, or simply a career change."

She said family-friendly policies had made the education world more favourable to women, and that the experience of career breaks was now more highly valued.

But others believe there is still some way to go to address male-dominated traditions in Wales, where only one of the 22 directors of education is a woman.

With the proportion of women at 81 per cent, primary schools are still dominated by females, but in secondaries only a third of teachers are female, compared with the rest of the UK, where women overwhelmingly outnumber men. But that is changing as more women apply for training courses.

Professor McNamara believes women who delay starting a family and train later - in their thirties rather than their twenties - are still at a disadvantage at a crucial time in their careers.

Another of the report's authors, recruitment expert John Howson, said: "When teachers leave on career breaks, not only do they not get a position commensurate with what they left on, but they are relatively more expensive."

Both professors Howson and McNamara believe change will not come quickly because schools in Wales are becoming more independent, and staff turnover is traditionally very slow.

A surplus of newly qualified teachers - particularly in South Wales - has made the jobs market more competitive, while closure of small village primaries and the merging of infants and juniors into larger schools has cut the number of headships.

Dr Heledd Hayes, education officer at the National Union of Teachers Cymru, said it was becoming harder to recruit new heads and that it was vital to address the issue as children are susceptible to gender stereotyping.

"In the very early stages of their education, the head is often a woman," she said. "As they move up, it's more likely to be a man. It becomes self- perpetuating."

Mrs Mansfield said governing bodies may still believe women should be younger to take on a headship. "Women will still be the child-bearers and there will potentially be career breaks," she said. "When they return, they are of a certain age and governors would potentially wish to keep their head for a reasonable number of years."

Dr Hayes said one solution would be to make the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), which is now compulsory, optional instead as it could deter people. But so far, there has been a healthy uptake of the qualification by women.

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