Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why It's Not Childcare That Holds Women Back

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why It's Not Childcare That Holds Women Back

Article excerpt

The demands of family life are a red herring. A more complex issue stops women pursuing the role of headteacher: self-doubt

It's a fact repeated so often that it has almost become a cliché: women vastly outnumber men in teaching, so it is reasonable to expect this to be reflected in school leadership. But that is not the case. The disparity is most stark in England's secondary sector, where only 36 per cent of headteachers are women.

I am the mother of two young children. I have held a leadership position while raising my family, overseeing the quality of teaching at Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College, an outstanding-rated secondary in the North West of England. And this month I have taken up my first headship.

As someone who has progressed quite quickly into headship after a successful career outside education, I am perplexed by the dearth of women choosing to become leaders in our sector. Over the summer I had time to reflect on my own leadership, as well as the year ahead in charge of my new school. I read Dame Sally Coates' book Headstrong: 11 lessons of school leadership, and discussed it with my sister-in-law, who is also a senior leader. We were puzzled by the paradox of the missing female headteachers, especially since so many talented women are working in our schools.

The easy and time-honoured explanation is child-rearing: that raising a family and successful school leadership are incompatible. The issue certainly crops up a lot in this week's TES cover feature (see pages 24-28). But I'm not convinced. Many of the excellent senior leaders I know, who are also mothers, believe this explanation is all too often a mask for other, more complex reasons that prevent women from pursuing senior leadership.

You don't need to be Superwoman

First, let's settle the issue of motherhood. My children were aged 1 and 3 when I spotted an advertisement inviting individuals committed to becoming leaders in challenging schools to apply for the Future Leaders programme. After a conversation with my highly supportive (female) headteacher, I applied.

Why did I find it such an easy decision to make when so many women decide against pursuing senior leadership?

Like those colleagues, my foremost consideration was how to balance family life with the responsibility of leadership. Indeed, I am often asked how I cope. The fact is, I am not Superwoman - it's all in the planning. My wonderful husband and I organise our childcare carefully, using our network of providers, family and friends to support us.

Although my husband is also a teacher, childcare is very rarely an issue for us. During the week, our children are well looked after so that we can dedicate ourselves to providing an education for other people's children - an education of the quality that we would expect for our own children. I'm not saying it's easy, but it is certainly doable.

I would go further: my experience tells me that female headteachers can be role models for other working mothers, by balancing a deep commitment to their own family with a relentless focus on improving outcomes for other young people. How do they achieve this balance? By dedicating time in the evenings and weekends to being with their children. Encouraging their staff to do the same can help to create a positive working culture, which breaks down any misconception that headship is incompatible with motherhood. …

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