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New first time mum, and National Director of School Partnerships at Ambition School Leadership, Karen Rose (@karenannarose) used a phased return to work to adjust to being a working mum, stay connected to her organisation and add capacity by leading on additional national priorities, outside of her usual role.

I’m suffering from imposter syndrome. There are a few reasons for this, but first off I need to make a confession: I’m not a teacher. I used to be a Head of Year, and now have the privilege of working with school leaders across the country to make a difference for young people, so I hope my experience can still resonate. I think everyone in education can find the work all consuming, exhausting and incredibly rewarding – in fact, not too different from having a baby!

Like a number of other MTPT Project case studies I was looking forward to maternity leave as a ‘rest’, or maybe I should say, a change of pace. I’d had a frantic year travelling up and down the country, meeting with MAT CEOs and head teachers, running events and speaking at conferences to make sure we were reaching as many school leaders as possible.

I’ve worked with children and young people all my life: in schools, for the NHS and undertaking social work assessments, so although this was our first baby I was under no illusions as to the challenges of introducing a little one to our lives, although obviously nothing prepares you for stepping out of the hospital armed with your firstborn, heading home with no idea what you’re doing. No NCT workshops or Pinterest boards can prepare you for that!

 But even so, I was really ready to go on maternity leave last Christmas; enormously relieved to have a great materntiy cover in place, and although the rest of the staff structure was… fluid… I was confident that the team would do a great job whilst I was away. 

One of my biggest concerns was keeping up to date with what is going on, both with our organisation and the wider education landscape. The past couple of years have had such an extraordinary pace of change that I was worried that a year would leave me totally out of touch. As an organisation, we’d also just gone through significant change (merging two former charities) and I wondered what impact this might have on the culture I was used to.

To try and combat this, I decided to retain my governor position at a local primary school, and really think about the best way of using my KIT days. Being a governor has been invaluable for me in understanding the pressures and concerns of schools, and how they impact decision making. New Funding Formula, SPAG testing, Changes to EYFS – it’s all helped give me a clearer perspective on school priorities. 

My KIT days have mostly been used to meet up with my line manager, maternity cover and direct reports/ peer colleagues, rather than the full team. That’s allowed me to stay focused on the strategic level changes. In addition to my KIT days, I’ve also made an effort to pop into the office with my little girl.  It’s been a great way to maintain visibility with an ever growing team (I only recognise about half the staff now!) and to keep up with some of the more subtle changes that I know in the past others found disorienting on their return to work.

I also decided to come back to work earlier than I’d initially planned. I’ve had a phased return from 9-12 months to focus on some specific national HR priorities rather than my permanent role. This has meant I’m back in the office 1 day a week, with another half day working at home.  This phased return has been so useful for getting my daughter used to spending time away from me, and vica versa, starting to get my head back into work, and allowing me to add value to areas the organisation would not otherwise have had capacity to deliver.  It’s also allowed me to focus on skills and areas that I have a real interest in such as HR, and to feel like I’m making a difference.

Despite all this it’s still been incredibly hard: walking out of the door while your baby cries for you is gut wrenching, even if you know she’ll be all smiles and sunshine in 10 minutes’ time. I’m also very aware that being able to do KIT days and other CPD has been made much easier because my in laws live locally. I have no idea what I’d have done otherwise, and really admire families who manage without this unconditional support network. I also know that whilst I’m looking forward to being back in my role, I’m dreading spending more time away than at home.

Flexible working is a hot topic in education at the moment, and is essential in retaining high quality staff with families. I’m lucky to work for an organisation that already supports this, and knowing I’m only doing four days has made preparing to return to work far less stressful. It’s obviously much easier when you’re not having to schedule classes, but there are still workload challenges. I’m also mindful of the possible impact on my team – a number of whom are also part time, so this is something I’m going to be looking at developing best practice around in to ensure we’re supporting staff who work part time – and the teams they lead – so watch this space!