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We Must Do More To Keep Female Leaders In Schools

August 17, 2017, 15:18 GMT+1
Read in 7 minutes
  • It’s not that schools are necessarily losing their women, but rather that schools are losing women with children.
  • Sarah Hardy looks at what schools can do to stop the exodus of female staff with good leadership potential...
We Must Do More To Keep Female Leaders In Schools

Look around your school and you’ll likely see more women in your workforce than men. In a profession that’s estimated to be 73% female that’s not unexpected – but look again, this time at how many women in their 30s make up your school’s staff and where they are within the staffing structure. How many of your SLT are women in that age bracket?

It’s not that schools are necessarily losing their women, but rather that schools are losing women with children. One in four of the teachers leaving the profession last year were women between the ages of 30 and 39, right around the age that many of us opt to start a family. On average that’s 6,000 teachers per year – and when we know that we’re currently struggling to recruit new teachers, we’re surely heading to crisis point if school leaders don’t act on this quickly. Because at the moment, only about 50% of those 6,000 leavers ever return.


Women leave university free and excited by the world of work. We consider our futures and see teaching as a career that will one day – when we admit to ourselves that we might want children – be a family-friendly career. We struggle in our first few years; lessons go wrong, we have difficult children in our classes and find that the workload is a challenge. But we maintain a good balance between our work and personal lives, while meeting wonderful friends and colleagues on our journeys who keep us going and encourage us to take those next steps into leadership.

Then things change. We re-evaluate our lives and many of us leave the profession – some temporarily, some forever. Why? I recently talked to a (male) headteacher colleague of mine about how hard it is being a working parent. He told me he rarely sees his two children awake during the week, and that his wife had left the profession because as a family, they couldn’t both live this way with young

Another school leader I spoke to, who left after having her first child in her 30s, told me that, “The demand is just too high for me to feel I can be a good mum too.”

Too often, school leaders don’t think about the damaging impact that life today can have on a family just starting up their life together. Many of us in our 30s and early 40s don’t live close to where we work, particularly if that’s in London, as we cant afford the high mortgages and deposits. So we commute – me included. It’s a hard day that involves leaving the house at 6am and not returning until after dark every night.

I have family nearby to help out with late meetings and events, a husband who has flexible working and I myself only work part time, but not everyone is as lucky. When the average childcare place for a child under 2 is priced at just over £6000 for 25 hours per week, returning to work is not a viable option for many. In London you can add a further £2000 a year onto that. One teacher told me that she was left with just £375 from her salary after paying for childcare and travel to work, and that not seeing her daughters of an evening was no longer worth it.


I’m an executive head, and my childcare for three days at nursery for my son is over a third of my salary. For those paid at the lower end of the leadership scale, this just isn’t feasible. Add to that the horror stories I’ve heard about the treatment some working parents face, and it’s clear we’re failing to make this the career-friendly profession we thought it would be in our NQT days

A middle leader with over 20 years experience once told me, “My school doesn’t pay parents who need to stay home with their children who are off sick. I had to choose between a day’s pay and my child. I chose my child and a scour of the TES.”

That sentiment was backed up by a subsequent comment told to me by a recently retired deputy head: “I told my young teachers to call in sick and not say it was their children who were sick, as our head made life hard for you if you took time off to be a mother to poorly children.”

So what’s happening nationally to help working parents remain in schools?

  • WomenEd

    A grassroots network of women supporting each other through local and national events – see and @WomenEd. You can also find a series of WomenEd-themed posts on Staffrm at


  • DfE-funded projects

    These include the regional networks that make up the Women Leading in Education project (see dfe-wlie for details) and the DfE’s ‘Equality and diversity school leadership projects’ (


  • Return to Teaching Support

    Part of the government’s ‘Get Into Teaching’ initiative – find out more at


Be an innovative and creative school leader – it will help your staff retention and encourage women who are great leaders stay with your schools. Below are practices I’ve seen pursued successfully in schools with a number of 30 to 39-year-old women in leadership roles:

Part-time working

This flexes to the needs of the employee rather than the school, doesn’t change mid-way through the year and is available to men as well as women – though currently only 9% of male teachers work part-time, compared with 27.2% of women. Enforce the government’s workload recommendations – you can find details of these at

Allow PPA time

This might include letting staff take their PPA or leadership time during an afternoon off-site, allowing them to pick children up from school and then work once their children have gone to bed.

Adopt flexi-time

Some staff could start at 7.30am and finish at 3.45pm on certain days, for example.

Workplace nurseries

Negotiate staff rates at local nurseries; at a minimum, organise access to childcare vouchers.

Amend your meetings

Try to ensure that these suit the needs of the leadership team of the day, not the school’s historic patterns.

Sarah Hardy is executive head of the TBAP Teaching Schools Alliance; for more information visit or follow @TBAPTSA