Ease your path back from maternity leave

23rd October 2015 at 00:00
Taking time off to have a baby could leave you feeling like you’ve lost touch with teaching, but there are ways to keep your hand in

As a teacher, not going to school is usually harder than going to school. I can think of countless occasions on which I have forced myself out of bed with a fever, sore throat or nasty cough, just because I felt I couldn’t afford to be off.

That feeling of being out of the loop – and out of control – has reached new heights: I am on maternity leave and will continue to be for almost the entire academic year.

My fear is less about the fate of my students – I know they are being looked after by excellent long-term teachers – than it is about my career. How on earth am I going to stay up to date with a profession that moves so fast? And what impact would a failure to do so have when I go back?

One day’s speaking and listening assessments are another day’s recycling-bin fodder. A year group entered for a particular exam board one day can be switched overnight to a different one, in a bid to maximise their achievement. It can be hard enough dealing with the week-by-week adjustments, let alone trying to catch up on an entire year’s worth.

To rub further salt into the wound, this year marks the beginning of a new syllabus for GCSE and AS/A-level. The style of the exam and types of texts taught don’t bear much resemblance to what went before. As a result, not only will the entirety of Years 10-13 need re-resourcing but so will Years 7-9, to reflect these changes.

By the time I return, nothing will be familiar. It’s hard enough to absorb all the changes when you’re at school, but seemingly impossible when you’re at home looking after a tiny infant.

Don’t get me wrong, the focus of my maternity leave is my (currently five-week-old) daughter and, for 95 per cent of the week, she is all I am focusing on and trying to get my head around. Being a parent is a full-time job in itself. But lurking at the back of my mind is an awareness that I should not get so far out of the loop that I can’t get back into it again.

Below are some suggestions on how to stay in touch, just enough to make your return to work bearable, while still staying far enough out of it to ensure that your leave remains exactly that – and doesn’t become working from home:

Stay connected

While on maternity/paternity leave, you are under no obligation to make contact with your department or school (other than to discuss your return-to-work date). Likewise, they should not be making contact with you.

But it may be worth keeping an eye on your emails. At my school, the head’s PA sends out a weekly email round-up of all school news and notices every Monday. I intend to use this communication to check in anonymously with whole-school news so that I know – to an extent – about developments.

On a similar note, my department has a meeting once a fortnight, the minutes from which are emailed to everyone the following day. A quick perusal does wonders for keeping up to date with in-department developments (and it doesn’t take long to read and absorb).

If your school doesn’t have either of these systems, you could initiate something yourself: emailing your head of department or a colleague every month to ask for a 10-point update of school and departmental news, for example.

Read the papers

If you can, take a minute to peruse TES. Even if you only manage the headlines and opening paragraphs, it will help you feel clued up when you do eventually go back. Podcasts, radio features and blogs are also useful snapshots of what’s going on.

Finally, Twitter may present a slightly skewed view of the teaching world on occasion, but it is incredibly useful for keeping up with current educational debates and issues.

Use your keeping-in-touch days

These days can be useful for all sorts of activities: you can collect your new timetable; take time to meet with your head of department, and discuss changes and important information regarding your new classes; spend time reading through new schemes of work; look over new exam papers; look at marked work from the year to get a sense of new mark schemes in practice; plan some lessons for your return…You are not going to be short of things to do. You could also treat these days as a practice run at childcare.

Do some tutoring or mark exams

This is one I probably won’t be doing but I know quite a few colleagues who have. You may feel that you wish not to work at all during your time off – and that is totally understandable. But there are some benefits to doing this. Tutoring and exam marking will generate extra income when statutory maternity pay runs out; it will also give you the chance to familiarise yourself with new exam formatting, new mark schemes and new texts. Plus, in a gentle way, tutoring will help you keep your hand in at being a teacher.

While getting used to being a parent is massively demanding, the pressures of not going into school can loom over you, too. Perhaps by trying a few of the suggestions above, this stress will be somewhat alleviated, allowing more time for the arguably much more important “parenting” aspect of maternity or paternity leave.

Katie White is an English teacher at Kingsbridge Community College in Devon

Know your rights

Maternity leave

Pregnant teachers are entitled, as a legal minimum, to take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave.

They must take a minimum of two weeks off after the birth.

If the teacher has been employed for 26 weeks before taking leave, she has a right to statutory maternity pay: six weeks at 90 per cent of normal pay; 33 weeks at standard rate (currently £139.58 per week); and 13 weeks unpaid.

During leave, teachers can take up to 10 “keeping in touch” days (aka KIT days) without losing leave or pay entitlements.

If a teacher takes up to 26 weeks of leave, she has the right to return to the same job. If she takes more than 26 weeks, she has the right to return to the same job or one that is not significantly different.

Shared parental leave

Applicable for children born after 5 April 2015.

The mother has to take two weeks of maternity leave after the birth, but then both parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave. This can be taken in separate blocks rather than in one go.

Both parents must have been employed for 26 weeks.

The mother can stay on maternity leave and allow the father access to shared parental leave if she gives binding notice to the employer of when her maternity leave will end. Alternatively, the mother can end her maternity leave and both parents can opt into shared parental leave.

Shared parental pay is payable at a standard rate (currently £139.58 per week) for up to 39 weeks (less any weeks taken on maternity leave).

Notice to book shared parental leave must be submitted eight weeks in advance.

Leave must be taken in multiples of one week.

A parent can make up to three applications for a continuous unbroken period of leave, and these cannot be refused.

Ongoing parental leave

Up to 18 weeks’ unpaid parental leave for each child can be taken any time before the child’s 18th birthday.

A parent must have been continuously employed for at least one year and have responsibility for the child.

Leave must be taken in multiples of one week.

A maximum of four weeks per child can be taken in any year.

You must give the employer at least 21 days’ notice.

The employer can postpone leave for up to six months.

Adoption leave

Since 5 April 2015, statutory adoption leave covers foster parents approved for adoption and parents of a child born to a surrogate mother, as well as adoptive parents matched by an adoption agency.

One person (the primary adopter) can take up to 52 weeks’ statutory adoption leave.

If the primary adopter has been employed for 26 weeks they have a right to statutory adoption pay: six weeks at 90 per cent of normal pay; 33 weeks at standard rate (£139.58 per week); and 13 weeks unpaid.

Prospective adoptive parents have the right to paid time off to attend up to five adoption appointments.

Since 5 April 2015, adoptive parents have the right to shared parental leave and pay.

Matthew Wolton is a partner at Clark Holt solicitors and specialises in education

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