This month, Sarah Hardy and Rebecca Foster courageously and honestly shared their experiences of parenting in a special edition of the TES. Their topics: IVF and miscarriage, respectively.
The absence of discussion around pregnancy, maternity leave, early parenthood, family and teaching in general means that since its inception, The MTPT Project has become a one-stop shop for questions and stories linked in some way to babies and teachers. As such, our team have quickly become very clued up on the available research surrounding maternity issues in education, legalities, statutory rights, statistics and case studies.
And yet when, in recent months, I have been approached by teachers asking for advice around unsupportive treatment from schools following miscarriage, or how to manage the emotional load of teaching after losing a baby, or what their leave entitlement for IVF appointments is, I have been able to do nothing other than listen, do my best to ask coaching questions, and direct teachers to those who have had similar experiences, or to coaches within The MTPT Project or WomenEd networks who feel they have the qualification and experience to facilitate helpful conversations.
As more and more people have been discussing their positive and negative IVF experiences, however, I have been encouraged by some individuals to act as a platform for the questions and ideas that have come out of these conversations. In this way, I hope attitudes of teachers and school leaders evolve and cultures for those going through IVF improves. This post comes with sincere and admiring thanks to Nicola Mooney, Sarah Hardy and Samantha Burges who have shared their IVF experiences and expertise with me, and edited this blog to help avoid inaccuracies or unintentional offence.
If you are a member of SLT, or involved in the higher echelons of academy chains or the local authority, there are lots of things that you can do to support your teachers:
Understand the Context
Pregnancies and births resulting from IVF are on the rise with almost 3% of babies born in the UK being the result of a successful IVF cycle. Success rates drop fairly significantly after the age of 37 but even under the age of 37, there is still only a 1 in 3 chance of conceiving successfully via IVF. Those undertaking IVF are well aware of these statistics, so knowing them as a line manager, leader or colleague can help to empathise with differing levels of optimism that teachers may be feeling at different stages of the process. In financial terms, less than 41% of IVF procedures are funded by the NHS (HFEA, 2016), and privately, the process costs around £5,000 for one cycle (Mumsnet) and often two or more cycles are required to become pregnant. It’s therefore easy to see why – desire to have a baby aside – IVF can be a highly emotive process that takes its toil on the personal and professional lives of your staff.
It’s also important to understand that there are treatments that precede an IVF cycle if conceiving naturally has been ruled out. Before IVF, there may be extensive investigative or alternative treatments including months of fertility medication, intrauterine insemination (IUI), surgery such as ovarian drilling, egg and sperm collection for testing. For this reason, both male and female staff may need time off for appointments even before they commit to the IVF procedure.
What’s important is that there is great variety in these fertility journeys and this will vary from couple to couple, or individuals completing the procedure on their own. Supportive communication, and lots of listening from SLT, is key to ensuring as smooth and human an experience as possible.
Understand the Process
IVF is complicated and time-bound, involving a lot of medication, appointments, failed attempts and intrusive procedures. Some cycles can be long, invasive and dangerous, and particularly tough on women; others can be shorter and more straightforward. It can be isolating and overwhelming and often, the last thing that someone going through this experience will want to do is explain the ins and outs of it to a line manager or their HR in order to justify asking for time off, or for feeling unwell.
You can support these teachers by providing training for relevant members of staff: this could be your HR manager, key members of SLT, your Safeguarding Lead, relevant middle leaders or School Business Managers. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority have a lot of informative reports and research, and This training could take the form of specific INSET workshops, sending staff to external providers, or simply creating a document that includes key information on it for line managers to read. If you have experienced IVF as a teacher and would be interested in helping to create templates for this documentation or a training workshop, we would love to hear from you.
Some helpful links for you to read and share where necessary:
- HFEA, 2016: Fertility Treatment, Trends and Figures
- Advice from private sector HR companies:
- Legal guidance from ACAS
- Helpful fact sheet for employers from Fertility Network UK
Some teachers who have gone through IVF have told us of incredibly insensitive treatment from their line manager or senior leadership team. We’d like to emphasise again that IVF is an incredibly emotional experience which is not guaranteed to end in success and as such, can present a significant strain on individuals’ mental, as well as physical health. Coupled with the performative demands of teaching as a profession, teachers will need all the support and empathy they can get at this time.
As a senior or middle leader, however, it can be frustrating to have to arrange cover for colleagues constantly needing time off for appointments, recovery, sickness or simply days when they are too emotionally impacted by the process to come into work. We urge you to maintain a sense of perspective at this time, and consider the long term impact of the culture you create around this issue: covering a teacher is an annoyance and a temporary financial burden. Losing a teacher who feels mistreated or who feels they cannot do the job you are asking of them and try to have the family they so badly want incurs far more costs in recruitment. Developing a reputation for your school as an unsupportive and inhumane workplace can do irreversible damage and negatively impact your staff turnover or the quality of candidates applying for vacancies.
Conversely, treating teachers with care and compassion at this vulnerable time in their lives is highly likely to pay dividends in staff loyalty and commitment. Increasingly, as taboos around topics like miscarriage and IVF are reduced, both male and female teachers are becoming more vocal about mistreatment or praising the support they have received, not just within school communities, but within wider networks, on blogs and in the media. Gaining a positive reputation for your school through your handling of these journeys to parenthood can be excellent for your reputation, and therefore the quality of candidates applying for your vacancies.
Write a Policy
A formalized policy can provide clarity for your school and staff and can easily be included in your existing parental leave, wellbeing or ‘family’ policy. According to Sarah Hardy, even a short paragraph can be hugely reassuring to teachers undertaking IVF, but it can provide structure and clear boundaries for school leaders as well. Wherever possible, try to write this policy in collaboration with a member of staff who has gone through the process and therefore understands the demands of both IVF, teaching as a profession, and your school context. Consider:
- What will you call the policy? Semantics can be a very clear indicator of your school’s view of fertility treatment and have a huge impact on your staff member’s experience: does it belong with your ‘sick’ policy, your ‘maternity and expectant mothers’ documentation, your ‘wellbeing’ policy?
- It could be a good idea to include this information from the 2010 Equality Act, which outlines the legalities associated with IVF and employment so that everyone knows exactly where they stand, and where the line between employee entitlement and employer good will is drawn.
- How many days off for appointments would you consider reasonable?
- Will these days be paid, or unpaid?
- Semantics can be dehumanizing or empowering – what will you call these days off? “Special”, “Medical” or “Personal” leave?
- Remember that it takes two to tango – male teachers hoping to become fathers will also need to be considered in this policy.
- The process of IVF and pre-IVF treatments requires recovery time and hormone treatments can incur side effects that might make it difficult for teachers to “perform” in front of a class. How long will you allow for recovery time, IVF related sickness, and again, what will you call this and will it be paid or unpaid? Will you consider it the same as pregnancy-related sickness, or outline a separate category?
- A risk assessment will need to take place for the person undertaking IVF similar to a pregnant member of staff
- Does your “managing medicines” policy extend to staff members? Some teachers may need to store, inject or otherwise medicate themselves with fertility drugs during school hours.
- How many cycles of IVF will this offer from your last for?
At The MTPT Project, we would like to do everything we can to support teachers – both male and female – going through IVF. We would love to hear from you if…
- You would be interested in acting as The MTPT Project’s ‘IVF Advocate‘, acting as a contact for advice, tips and support for teachers going through IVF. We would refer questions and queries on to you via email or Twitter.
- Your school already has an IVF policy that we could use as a template to share with others.
- You are interested in setting up a larger support network for teachers undertaking IVF as an offshoot of The MTPT Project/ WomenEd organisations.