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‘There is a “motherhood penalty” and a “fatherhood bonus” for those aspiring to school leadership’

Kate Chhatwal, chief programme officer at the Future Leaders Trust, writes:

Schools are in the business of children, so it is disappointing that research by the Future Leaders Trust suggests schools are no different from any other organisation in how they treat the parents they employ.

Consistent with other sectors, our ongoing survey of almost 300 school leaders has so far revealed a significant "motherhood penalty", the term used to describe the range of ways in which mothers lose out in the workplace. There was also evidence of a "fatherhood bonus", where men with children accrue a range of benefits, though we also found that dads in school leadership have it tough too.

The career damage caused by motherhood showed up in a variety of ways, from sniping colleagues, to diminished pay and promotion opportunities. One woman spoke of her pay being docked for two days off with a child with chickenpox, despite having an otherwise unblemished attendance record. On reaching headship, mothers are 50 per cent more likely than fathers to start in the bottom third of the advertised pay range, while father are far more likely to start headship in the highest band than mothers. And the picture is worse in secondary than in primary schools.

There is also a personal cost, with women who reach headship being less likely to have children and having fewer children if they do. Some talked of delaying motherhood or “sacrificing” it altogether, such as the woman who commented that “being a senior leader is the biggest reason why I have not become a parent as … I would be unable to give a child the attention and time they would require alongside my SLT duties.” Others waited until their children were older before seeking headship.

Fathers, on the other hand, often felt parenthood brought greater kudos. They were twice as likely as female leaders to think they were perceived more positively by governors after having children. They also found it a helpful strategy in building trust with parents, with one commenting that “I often use the line ‘as a parent myself…’”. Many felt parenthood made them better leaders, raising their expectations based on what would be good enough for their own children, and bringing greater empathy to their approach.

Despite these advantages, combining fatherhood and leadership isn’t an entirely positive experience. While women felt that becoming a head improved their work-life balance compared with being a deputy, men tended to think the opposite. I admit to being taken aback by just how many male leaders are tortured by the same sense of guilt I feel as a working mum. One man commented: “It’s a question of balancing guilt (letting family down v letting children at school down) as I allocate my time”.

It is clear that there is more schools need to do to support staff of both genders to be both great leaders and great parents, able to nurture their own children as well as those in their schools. Studies have not found evidence that parents are significantly less productive in their jobs. On the contrary, school leaders (whether parents or not) feel that being a parent adds another dimension to school leadership, and those with children often report how becoming a parent has made them more efficient. And the children in our schools – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who might not get support from their own parents – need all the great leaders they can get.

Some schools do get it right – often those led by parents or with large numbers of parents on the SLT. Among all the tales of guilt, frustration and outright discrimination, there were a few positive stories. One school instituted a termly “home family week”. In these weeks there are no after-school meetings, so that all staff – including senior leaders – can go home and spend time with their families. Another provided free childcare for staff and parents participating in evening events.

But in too many schools SLT are expected to be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave in the (late or very late) evening. And this is the case regardless of what they actually achieve. Yet surely staff should be judged on outcomes, not the hours they put in?

One of the most successful schools I’ve visited recently is led by a mother who works four days a week and who supports her staff to similarly balance their own work and life commitments (child-related or otherwise). And it is an outstanding school, where more than 70% of pupils attract pupil premium funding and in 2014 over 80% achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths. That’s up from less than 70% before the head’s daughter was born four years ago.

The irony of course is that many schools invest significant time and effort in trying to engage parents because they know what a difference it can make to their pupils’ success. There’s even a quality mark they can get for doing it well. Yet when it comes to allowing the parents on their payrolls to attend their own children’s parents’ evenings and assemblies, too often the encouragement dries up.

This has to change. Schools owe it not just to the leaders of today but to the leaders of tomorrow in their classrooms – both teachers and pupils – to demonstrate that it is possible to combine a rewarding career and a fulfilling family life.

This means we need more heads who act as role models in being great at their job and shaping it to fit their family commitments. They must promote a culture in our schools that recognises performance and outcomes above hours worked, and make changes to school routines so that they are compatible with the rhythms of family life. Ultimately we can’t afford for our children to miss out on a pool of exceptional school leaders simply because headship is seen as incompatible with being a parent.

Aspiring primary headteachers are being recruited for the Future Leaders programme until March 30

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