In her game-changing book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg explores the phenomenon of women in all sectors of the workforce ‘leaving before they leave’. Sandburg presents research showing that women choose certain subjects at university; go on to take on certain professional positions, or refuse to apply for promotions or more responsibilities in their twenties and thirties to ensure that their working lives are compatible with their as-of-yet non-existent families.  Many women make these – often unconscious – decisions before they even have a partner or know whether they are able to have children, but apparently men do not subject themselves to the same career and family planning.

Research completed by Marianne Coleman in 2002 indicated that only 60% of female heads were also mothers, in comparison to 90% of male head teachers.  Following discussions at a recent Teach First ambassador roundtable event focusing on the barriers to headship, The MTPT Project have a suspicion that this tendency to ‘leave before they leave’ is the reason that many female teachers do not pursue school leadership positions.  However, there are lots of women out there who not only balance and thrive in headship positions with young families, they also held these roles before and during pregnancy and maternity leave.

There’s nothing like a role model to get you feeling inspired, so over the next few months, we are going to try to source these mother head teachers and find out the practical and attitudinal steps that have allowed them to have their babies, and eat their leadership cakes, too.

Continuing on from Rebecca Cramer and Angela Browne’s fantastic starting interviews, we now hear from Liz Robinson, co-head at Surrey Square Primary in London.  Liz became a head teacher at 29 and was in post when she became pregnant with her first child. She returned to work job-sharing with long time colleague, Nicola Noble, who also took her first maternity leave at the same time as Liz.  Her daughters are now 4 and 6, and Liz and Nicola have become nationally recognised role models in the world of co-leadership positions.

Liz has committed to sharing her experience of co-headship more widely, but how did she find breaking the leadership mould and continuing to pioneer in this field when job sharing at headship level is not a common scenario?

“I always knew that I wanted to have a family, and never thought that that would be incompatible with being a head! I had a great role model in my own mum, who had very senior roles in public service and balanced that with being a great mum. I have always worked really hard to support women who have had children, with a range of flexible working arrangements. I always just hoped that through ‘what goes around, comes around’, I would be afforded similar attitudes when it was my turn! I absolutely adore being a mummy, and also love my professional life, so a healthy balance of them both is a great solution for me.”
“The most important job we do as leaders is to grow those around us and create capacity within our teams. My relationship with Nicola has been serendipitous, but also reflects years of investment from us both. We first met in 2003, and identified that we would like to work together, so networking and building relationships are really critical. The co-headship with her has worked really well – and if there had been no Nicola I would have had to have a different plan! I guess the ideal is always to build a strong team around you so that you move towards increasingly shared leadership. This is just how I have always worked.”
“We did our research first – talking to some others who were working in this way, to really understand the model and explore what the options would be for us and the school. We then talked to our chair and vice-chair first – we used this as a chance to surface issue, worries and risks, and then go away and do more work on them. They were very supportive from the outset, worries notwithstanding, and worked with us to find a solution which worked for everyone.  It did take two attempts to get the full governing body to sign it off – we produced a number of documents to show how we had thought it all through and put things in place to mitigate the risks.

The staff were almost exclusively positive about the change; as a close head and deputy, the reality was not a huge change, and I think people were pleased for Nicola to have recognition. They were also pleased that it meant we were both staying for the longer term.”

“I absolutely loved maternity leave and tried really hard not to think too much about school! I did keep in touch with various colleagues, and attended a few meetings, taking the little one with me. I think it is so important that this is a choice and there is no pressure either way. You have got to do what works for you.”
My partner gave up work when I went back to work after my second daughter was born, and has not looked back since! He absolutely loves being full time daddy, and it works really well for us as a family. He has got involved with their nursery (as a governor) and runs singing at playgroup! He sees this as his job, and takes on pretty much all of the domestic duties, shopping, cooking and washing etc. He is now thinking about working again as the girls with both soon be at school, but is totally committed to this being flexible so that he can still do the school run.”
“Of course, it is a huge juggle! There are some practical things that help – including the mental shift that going home is not ‘down time’ in the way it used to be, but has its own intensity. The most challenging part of the day is often the first 20 minutes when I get home – I am tired, the girls both want my attention and are both excited and tired, and my partner wants to debrief the day.. My main strategy is to go for big cuddles and lots of deep breaths until we all settle down into the family evening time together. Being kind to yourself if so critical – you have to acknowledge that you are different, life is different, and rethink how some parts of your life work.”
“I think the main advice I would give is to get some coaching! This is the time in your career you need it most. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution – it depends on you, your life circumstances, experience and of course the school and its circumstances. When I was first at Surrey Square, it would be have been a totally different experience to have had a baby, as the school was much more vulnerable and needed something different from me.”