Should Teacher-Fathers Take Shared Parental Leave?
Taking shared parental leave is uncommon, but as William Pope explains, there’s an excellent case for it.
Just over a year ago I was in the dreaded position of returning to school after an extended period of time off, following the birth of our second daughter. When back for INSET at the start of term, however, I didn’t have dreadful anxiety at leaving my beloved daughter at nursery or streams of people asking me how it was to be back.
It was like I’d never been away. After what had been such a monumental, life changing phase for me, nobody else seemed to have even noticed my absence. I think this was probably for two reasons: firstly, I’d only been away for a term, and secondly, I’m a dad.
My wife had taken seven months off after having had our second daughter and I arranged with my school to take Statutory Shared Parental leave for the entirety of the Spring term. In this article I hope to share my thoughts for any future or new teacher dads (or secondary carers) considering exercising your legal entitlement to an extended amount of time off school to look after a newborn child.
The excellent book Cribsheet, by Prof Emily Oster and her blog helped influence both my decision to take parental leave and to write this article. I strongly recommend reading both Cribsheet and its prequel, Expecting Better for data driven, evidence supported advice around raising a family. Please note that in this article I refer to fathers and dads as the non-primary caregiver, but I hope that it applies equally well to any two-parent relationship.
While America is viewed as the bogeyman of parental leave, it seems that Scandinavia is generally viewed as leading the way in progressive approaches. Research by Maya Rossin-Slater (2017) suggests that reducing the amount of time that mothers are away from work to below 12-months both improves a woman’s job continuity and their employment-rate several years after childbirth; longer leave periods for mothers had the opposite effect.
She also claims that fathers will take extended leave if the option is available to them and that such leave has minimal adverse affect on organisations. This final point had been a significant concern for me. Running our Physics department, I feared that my absence would have negative effects on our external exams grades, and result in my team resenting covering my absence internally.
The reality could not have been a greater example of how categorically expendable I seem to be and how brilliantly my team continued without me. Historically, I had typically taught a heavy load of exam classes and I did not want to risk leaving them with cover teachers for a whole term.
Planned well in advance, the solution we came up with was that I would be timetabled to teach Yr 9, 10 and 12 for the entire year, hence not teaching any final exam classes.
My Spring term absence was covered by my colleagues in the Physics department who were scheduled to be available to teach specific classes for the whole term. Our department ECT and I team-taught my Yr 9s for the Autumn and Summer terms while he took the Spring term solo; while younger members of staff were trained in advance and prepared to step up to A-level content for the year.
At the end of the term, we found that my colleagues greatly preferred having their week’s allocation of ‘cover’ lessons spent teaching their specialty with class continuity rather than being pulled to cover Yr 7 Latin or Yr 13 Economics, which would normally be the case. The colleague who had taken on the role of HoD in my absence was asked by the school to take the role permanently (I was already due to move to a new role the following September) following a fantastic period acting in the role to prove their worth.
The ECT seemed grateful to have me back, but had used my absence to really make his mark on the class and essentially ran them single-handedly from that point onwards.
The option of making family leave a shared concept, as we have in the UK, appears to result in limited take up from fathers. Hoping to counter this, Norway has a policy reserving 4 weeks of the family’s 42 week allocation for the father; if the father does not take it, it’s lost. The uptake of paternal leave increased by 40% as a direct result of the implementation of this policy.
The authors of the research (Cools et al, 2015) found that, especially if the father had a higher level of education than the mother, taking a period of paternal leave increased children’s early school performance. Meanwhile, examining the same ‘Daddy quota’ of four weeks paternal leave, Kotsadam and Finseraas (2011) reported a clear rise in fathers increasing their contribution to household chores, presumably as a result of having been left on their own to do it for an extended period of time.
The numbers also claimed 11% lower levels of conflict over household divisions of labour, and 50% more likely to equally divide laundry chores; clear signs of a happier household.
The UK’s shared parental leave policy allows qualifying families to split 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between them. The BBC reports (Cox, 2021) that in 2018, around 1% of the 900,000 UK parents able to follow the policy did so. There is strong evidence to suggest that financial worries, risks to future career advancement and cultural stereotypes play a significant part in preventing fathers from taking up their entitlement, with Harvard Business School (Fuller, 2019) claiming that 40% of men (compared to 25% of women) strongly agreeing that “caregivers are perceived to be less committed to their careers than non-caregivers”.
With these opinions so widely shared, culturally we are facing an uphill battle to encourage men to take time away from their work to look after their children, despite figures such as Serena Williams’ husband, Alexis Ohanian encouraging us all to do so in a brilliant article for the New York Times. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/parenting/alexis-ohanian-paternity-leave.html )
Compared to the complexity of my wife’s return to work before our first daughter could start nursery (multiple nanny shares, relying on grandparents, accrued annual leave, etc), this arrangement was immeasurably simpler, only marginally more expensive and was much less stressful for our family.
It also enabled my wife to focus on returning to work without worrying about any admin at home and free from the emotional guilt some parents feel around returning to work too early. By being paid for the school holidays on either side, an unpaid term (with a little statutory) was less challenging on the household bills than initially feared, but had required some saving beforehand.
I predict absolutely no harm to my future career trajectory as a result of taking a break. The fact that a term later, many of the students and my colleagues had forgotten I was ever away shows how seamlessly the arrangements worked and makes me question anyone’s opinions of self-imposed “irreplaceability”.
I have no idea whether the mini-Pope will perform better at school as a result of me taking her to MiniMusicMakers once a week, nor do I know if my wife and I have 11% fewer arguments about cleaning than the average couple, or if we’re anywhere near laundry equity.
What I strongly believe, however, is that every time a non-birth parent takes time to look after their child, they are boosting longer-term equality in the workplace.
Perhaps most importantly, I absolutely loved it. It was a little odd being the only dad in 90% of the classes we went to, but my daughter and I had a blast. (To all those mums who view the dad in the class with suspicion, please be nice to him; he’s not there to hit on you.)
My relationship with both my girls is stronger as a direct result, I feel that I played an active and instrumental role in our child’s first year that I may not have been able to do without being sole care-giver for an extended period of time. I know that this won’t stop me being mortally embarrassing in ten years time but I hope it has set the seeds for a long and loving family relationship.
To any non-primary parent considering taking extended leave but worried of any consequences, be rational, think about what really matters. And then fill out the form.
Cox, J. 2021, Paternity leave: The hidden barriers keeping men at work, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210712-paternity-leave-the-hidden-barriers-keeping-men-at-work
Cools, S et al, 2015 – Caual effect of Paternity leave on Children and Parents, The Scandinavian Journal of Economics. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/sjoe.12113
Fuller, J. and Raman, M. 2019, The Caring Company, Harvard Business School, https://www.hbs.edu/managing-the-future-of-work/Documents/The_Caring_Company.pdf
Kotsadam, A and Finseraas, H, 2011, The State intervenes in the battle of the sexes: Causal effects of paternity leave, Social Science Research Vol 40 Issue 6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0049089X11001153?casa_token=uj8OQ82F_I4AAAAA%3AILT9y1tmI9dTtBLeFm09hSvh2HIRO56eNwCcS3PnYbROXKaOXEF9uJnKZUGMGeoqvO7zpyr9E3k&utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email
Oster, E. Cribsheet, 2019, Souvenir Press
Rossin-Slater, M. 2017, Maternity and Family Leave Policy. https://web.stanford.edu/~mrossin/RossinSlater_maternity_family_leave.pdf?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email