An Amazing Feeling

Head of History and father of one, Tom Allen (@tomallenhistory) spent six months of shared parental leave with his daughter.  As well as supporting his wife and getting to know his new daughter, he completed subject-specific paternityCPD and travelled to Australia to strengthen family connections.

Around the time my wife and I were first trying for a baby in 2015, I read an article in the newspaper about the new laws around shared parental leave. I knew it was something I wanted to do if I had the opportunity. We had already discussed wanting to share the responsibilities of childcare as much as possible, and the new rules around splitting the parental leave seemed to offer the chance to do this from the beginning of our child’s life.

In 2016, we found out we were expecting a baby, due on New Year’s Day 2017.  We decided that I would take six months of SPL from my job as Head of History at an academy, and my wife, who is self-employed, would take the remaining six months. We intended to take the first four months together, from Christmas to April, with my wife then returning to work for two months while I looked after the baby alone. When I went back to work on 30 June after the six month mark, my wife would use the remaining two months of SPL.

I was lucky to be working in an academy which had a clear Shared Parental Leave policy (I have since found out that some male colleagues working in schools without a policy in place have had to fight for the right to take extended periods of SPL). The policy was easy to follow. When I put in my request, I remember the then Acting Headteacher saying he wished he could have done the same thing when his children were born!

The school formulated a plan for my absence, deciding that it would not be necessary to cover the TLR aspects of my role as Head of History (the Head of Humanities and the new Headteacher, a historian, covered these responsibilities between themselves). Knowing I was part of a strong network of history teachers in the local area, the school asked me to help find someone to cover my lessons for six months. I was able to recommend someone excellent for the role. I agreed to mark and administer the A-Level coursework as well.

It was an amazing feeling when the end of term came at Christmas 2016 to know that I would have such a long uninterrupted period to spend with the baby after the birth. Our daughter Gwen was born on 3 January. I was glad to have made the decision to take SPL, as my wife struggled physically and mentally for several weeks following the birth. The fact that I was there 24/7, could be awake at any time of night, could feed the baby, cook and clean without having to juggle the responsibilities of being an HoD made an absolutely transformational difference in those dark winter weeks.

In February the SPL gave us the chance to visit my wife’s family in Australia. Being a teacher in the UK with extended family in Australia means that normally the only time a visit is possible is during the British summer holidays, which is of course winter in the southern hemisphere. Seeing family in the Australian sun helped us turn a corner after the difficult first weeks of parenthood. We could also introduce Gwen to her nonagenarian great-grandmother, who she is named after.

When we returned home, Spring was on the horizon and we were slowly getting the hang of parenting. I looked after Gwen on my own when my wife returned to work part-time in April. These were very happy days. As Gwen would only sleep in a sling, I walked miles around the city each day, following a mental map of cafés where I could warm a bottle of milk and places with good changing facilities. On Thursdays the cinema had a showing for parents and babies.

I was also able to undertake my own subject knowledge development during the period of SPL. While Gwen slept in the sling, I made use of Bristol’s Central Library to read and plan new ideas for enquiries. Bristol has a great network of history teachers who meet regularly, and I kept these contacts up, leading a CPD session (on using the library) for other teachers.

I returned to school in June. The transition back to work was not problematic – everything  had been fine in my absence! The real test came in September, when the reality of managing the demands of work and a nine-month-old baby became apparent. One of the first hiccups came when, due to a miscommunication with my wife, I had to look after Gwen as well as doing the Sixth Form information evening at school. I managed to do both, giving a talk to prospective sixth formers with Gwen strapped to me in the sling.

I was so happy to have taken the opportunity for shared parental leave. The six months I spent looking after my daughter were an extremely happy and important time in my life, and I feel they were hugely significant in my life as a father. Now Gwen is six and we are expecting our second child. I am starting at a new school next year who have agreed that I can work on a 0.6 FTE contract. I am really pleased that schools are increasingly recognising the need to allow teachers to have time to be parents as well.