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Founder of The MTPT Project, Emma Sheppard (@Comment_Ed) reflects on the questions raised at her first in person CPD event since starting her second maternity leave.

This week, I attended my first in-person CPD event with my new baby. After a difficult last few months of pregnancy it felt exhilarating to be leaving the house after dark without feeling entirely exhausted, to take the stairs at the train station rather than waddling to the lift and to put my own boots on and take them off when I got home!

The event in question was a Teach First round table evening focusing on the barriers faced by Teach First ambassadors considering headship. According to the speakers, there are more than 4,000 ambassadors still teaching but only 32 Teach First head teachers. For a training programme that seems to sprinkle the word ‘leadership’ around like hundreds and thousands (Leadership Development Programme, Leadership Development Officer, MA in Educational Leadership – I’ve done them all!) there therefore seems to be a disconnect between the organisation’s intentions for their trainees, and the outcomes. Teach First is a young charity – their first cohort began teaching in 2004, but this means that some of the earlier recruits have now been teaching for 10-14 years.  Is this a sufficient amount of time to climb the leadership ladder to headship, especially given the leadership shortage and especially given this shortage in the “challenging” schools still favoured by many ambassadors?

To try to tackle this issue in his new post as CEO of Teach First, Russell Hobby asked a room full of ambassadors – all of whom, I assume, were senior leaders hovering metaphorically over their headteacher applications – to discuss why they would or would not consider headship.  What was getting in their way? And how might they be persuaded to apply for a headship position in a hard to reach northern or coastal region where social deprivation is at its highest and student outcomes their lowest?

Now this was an interesting one for me: whilst I felt no imposter syndrome (I was attending the event with a 5 day old baby and, did I mention, I’d put my own boots on for the first time in four months? This made me officially awesome, maybe the most awesome person in the room – no imposter syndrome here), I am not a senior leader. I am a Lead Practitioner, floating vaguely in the hierarchy of “who knows?” and enjoying doing a good job. There are, however, many, many senior leaders in The MTPT Project community and so it was very easy for me to consider this whole “barrier” question from a community perspective, and it was very easy to offer an answer: the barrier to headship faced by many female teachers was strapped to my chest, sleeping very peacefully and making light snuffly noises.

Like the teacher workforce, the majority of Teach First ambassadors and participants are women, but how many are suffering from this ‘motherhood penalty’?  How many of the 32 Teach First head teachers are women? How many of these female head teachers are mothers?  At least one – Carly Mitchell of Oasis Academy Southbank, sitting next to me at the time, had her son at the same time as me whilst in her third year of headship. But we – Teach First staff included – weren’t sure about the answers to any of these other questions.  Once again, the area of maternity leave, motherhood and the teacher workforce seems to be coming up as a data void.

This lead me to contemplate and discuss some more MTPT-relevant questions:

  • How many female teachers reach Deputy or Assistant Principal positions before having children and then sit comfortably in these positions choosing a fulfilled work life balance rather than continuing on to headship? Does this feel like career sacrifice or common sense to them?
  • How many women put off taking the next steps in their career progression when reaching their late twenties because at some point in the future, they may want to ‘stop’ to have children and they assume this would be incompatible with headship?  This is a phenomenon discussed by Sheryl Sandburg in ‘Lean In’, where she encourages us not to ‘leave before we leave’, but to take promotions and pursue ambitions regardless of our family aspirations. Our male equivalents don’t appear to suffer from this inner voice that tells them to choose one or the other, so why should we?
  • Conversely, how many women work their way to headship in their thirties, deciding to ‘do career first’ and then step down to ‘relax’ into motherhood?  And why?  Because the job or social pressure is too demanding, or because – why not? Is this the way to enjoy the best of both worlds?
  • Is being a head teacher a one person job?  If this leadership position was always shared – between two men, two women, a man and a woman, a father and a woman without children, a mother and a man without children, two mothers, two fathers – would the role be more appealing and more sustainable, and would we see fewer headship positions go unfilled?

There were so many other interesting topics discussed that fed into these questions. The confidence gap, for example, was raised as an issue for all potential candidates, not just women or mothers. Do we, as a national workforce, not apply for headship positions because we’re worried that our applications would be laughable? That the competition is obviously too strong and we’d be making fools of ourselves? That our lack of experience would be shameful and exposed in front of a stern interviewing panel?

In relation to implanting head teachers into those “hard to reach” regions, many ambassadors discussed the issue of community, and this has never been a more pertinent topic for me: almost all of my closest friends live in and around London, as does my sister. Since my first son was born, they have literally saved the day with nursery pick ups, emergency Saturday babysitting, house moves, food parcels.  During one particularly bleak pregnancy spell where my fatigue, anxiety and depression had hit peak levels, three of them descended in Ubers and manhandled me out of the house for a coffee and croissant intervention accompanied by lurid tales of their single, child free Friday nights, whilst feeding my son milk foam and showing him his reflection in circular Pret-a-Manger trays.

In the week since my daughter has been born, one friend has discreetly stepped into the house to stay the night with my son whilst I laboured in the living room. Another purchased M&S’s entire stock of ready meals to keep us alive for a week. My sister stepped off a plane from her Thai holiday, put on a load of washing and jumped on the northern line to support with the insanity of breastfeeding a newborn whilst trying to put a very overexcited toddler to bed. She has since blocked out all of her Tuesdays from her freelance work, just in case I might need her.  How on earth could I manage this sort of lifestyle in a coastal town to which I have no ties and no social circle, with an incredibly demanding headship position?

Despite all of these barriers, there were some fantastic solutions suggested by the ambassadors attending (not sure how much I can reveal of Russell’s secret plans to solve the leadership recruitment crisis!) and the genuine affirmation from the inspiring Carly Mitchell that headship was the best job in the world. It needs endless optimism, creativity, resilience and outsourcing, especially when combined with preparing for and raising a young family, but it can be done. 

If you are considering headship, but are not sure how to combine this ambition with your family aspirations, we would love to provide you with more role models of pregnant head teachers and head teachers with very young families. Already we know of Carly Mitchell, Lizzie Robinson (@LizzieRobinson3) and Angie Brown (@nourishedschool – check out her particularly relevant vlog post as a Mama Headteacher:

We would love to hear and showcase any more, so please do get in contact with us to share your story of pregnancy, motherhood and headship, or to introduce us to a colleague who has ignored the motherhood penalty to achieve her career and personal goals.