What’s The Data On Teacher Maternity?

By Emma Sheppard


The education sector needs to do more to address the motherhood penalty in education. Emma Sheppard of the MTPT Project dives into the data.


We’ve known for some time that women aged 30-39 are the largest demographic to leave teaching every year, and (thanks to research from The MTPT Project) that the motherhood penalty has a good deal to do with this[1]. It’s a penalty that contributes to the gender inequality we see at school leadership level, which plays out – as confirmed by the 2021 report from WomenEd, ASCL, the NAHT and NGA[2] – in our shameful gender pay gap. And it’s not just mother-teachers who are suffering: hypothetically, part of the reason we recruit so few male teachers, is because we have very little to offer them when they become fathers.

The big picture statistics are clear: the education sector needs to do more to address the motherhood penalty in education and to create a profession that promises fulfilment in both personal and professional lives. But how is this data playing out in your setting: is your school or Trust suffering from the consequences of the motherhood penalty in education?

The current nationwide data that does exist, is fairly recent (2018-2021), a result of two key barriers: ignorance, and capacity.

Until 2016 and the founding of The MTPT Project, very few people were paying any focused attention to the motherhood penalty and its knock-on impact on gender equality and the teacher workforce.  It’s therefore unlikely that such data exists at school or Trust level.

Take The MTPT Project’s 2022 Freedom of Information Request to ten large MATs regarding the number of staff taking a period of maternity leave in the previous academic year: only two MATs were able to return the data within the FOI time period of 20 days.  Six returned the data after a slight, or significant delay, and one response was partially complete – presumably this data had to be pulled, or collated, from internal records because it did not yet exist in an accessible document.  One MAT was unable to respond to the FOI request at all.

Such responses are typical of our current data landscape when it comes to the parent-teacher demographic.  As well as simply never having thought about it too much, school and Trust leaders are busy people, managing competing priorities on a daily basis.  Teaching is a time-poor profession and leaders often find there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for such (inessential?) data collection, or the strategic visions to address the issues that the data uncovers.  What’s more, HR systems are not always fit for purpose: they don’t collect statistics around maternity, paternity, adoption or shared parental leave, or they do not have functionalities to collate this data in a helpful way.

Given the time, motivation and appropriate data-collection tools, though, the following questions can provide powerful insight, not just into staffing and recruitment trends, but also the potential solutions to retain, and empower progression and equality.


How many staff take a period of parental leave over each academic year?

Breaking down according to maternity, adoption, paternity or shared parental leave can provide a picture of how inclusive your setting is of different family set ups and exactly who might need further support going forwards.

Are fathers, for example, taking extended periods of shared parental leave in your school, or are their parenting choice limited by cultural and financial pressures?  Do staff feel able to commit to the adoption process, knowing that they will be fully supported by your school?  If almost no periods of paternity leave have been taken, then what does this suggest about the current gender split across your staff body, or the age of male teachers you are attracting and losing?

Tracking the same data set back 1-5 years can provide interesting insight into whether these figures are increasing, decreasing or remaining stable.  Is your school becoming more, or less family-friendly?


How many of these colleagues return from their parental leave?

A small sample size from 2008 suggests that 87% of teachers return from maternity leave[3].  However, 2018 data from The MTPT Project and responses to our 2022 FOI request suggest that this figure could be as low as 73%[4].

Where your data reveals attrition, exit-interviews can provide important insight into the reasons for resignations.  Are these teachers leaving to become stay at home parents?  Is this choice voluntary, or as a result of astronomical childcare costs?  Are they moving to a different school closer to home?  Or a school with better workload or flexible working practices?  How many of these colleagues are being signed off following stressful experiences of discrimination?


How long do colleagues return for following a period of parental leave?

In order to enjoy our occupational maternity or adoption pay, teachers must serve certain qualifying and claw-back periods, or otherwise risk securing very little maternity or adoption pay, or paying back large sums of money to their employers.

Data that reveals a retention period of between a term to a year following colleagues’ return from maternity or adoption leave suggests that staff might only be staying with you to avoid these financial penalties.

Data that reveals retention between two or more periods of maternity or adoption leave, and then attrition within a term to a year following the second, suggests that staff might only be staying with you to secure financial security in their second or subsequent period of leave.

At first, this might seem like canny planning on behalf of the staff member: remaining with their employer and enjoying the benefits of the profession until they are financially free to leave.  In reality, however, a colleague who only remains because of these financial restrictions is a teacher or leader who is trapped, whose occupational mobility is limited, and who feels forced to remain despite unhappy working conditions or discriminatory practice, none of which suggests a positive working culture in your school or Trust.


What patterns can you see around attrition, progression and pay?

Typically, motherhood impacts women’s occupational mobility in a way that it does not impact men’s.  Nationally, 26% of fathers upgrade their occupational status five years following childbirth, in comparison to 13% of mothers.  18% of mothers had left the workforce altogether, in comparison to 4% of fathers.[5]

The reasons for this stagnation are multifaceted: seemingly small details like the qualifying and claw-back periods previously mentioned are compounded with the impact of mothers taking on a greater proportion of household and childcare responsibilities.  These caring duties prevent mothers from commuting for work or promotions, and demand flexibility at the beginning and the end of the day.  As male partners are still the breadwinners in the majority of heterosexual couples, mothers’ career progression is often sacrificed to facilitate the success of the higher earning father.

What does your data tell you about mothers’ ability to progress in your setting: how many have received promotions or pay increases over the last 3-5 years?  How many have undertaken professional development opportunities such as NPQs, or taken on new challenges that are likely to lead to improved pay and progression in the future?  How do these patterns compare to the trajectories of fathers, who are more likely to experience a ‘bonus’ once they become parents?

How are the trends surrounding parents’ occupational mobility influencing the gender pay gap in your setting?


Data-Informed Solutions

There is no silver bullet that will solve the motherhood penalty in any industry.  Instead, working parents require an ecosystem of data-informed solutions to support them to remain, and progress within the teacher workforce.

So far, the research suggests that this eco-system includes[6]:

  • Effective flexible working solutions
  • Coaching for parent-teachers
  • Financial and logistical support with childcare
  • Equal and increased parental leave and pay
  • Supportive return to work procedures
  • Discrimination and inclusive leadership training for line managers
  • Access to role models
  • Manageable workloads
  • Supportive school cultures

Gaining a better understanding of the data surrounding your parent-teachers can enable you to prioritise strategies going forwards, and then track the impact.

For example, your data may suggest that – despite positive culture of flexible working – mother-teachers are still stagnating, professionally.  In this instance, profiling visible role models at leadership level, offering coaching, or well-matched shadowing opportunities might help mother-teachers to navigate a pathway of progression that works for them.  Repeating the same data tracking exercise annually, or as part of a three or five-year review can provide you with a point of comparison: do those who have received coaching or shadowing opportunities from mother-teacher role models demonstrate positive occupational mobility in their career trajectories?

Alternatively, if your data indicates that discriminatory practice might be pushing mothers out of your school or Trust, then training for middle and senior leaders might become a staple part of our school improvement plan in the medium-term.  After three to five years, are you seeing more flexible working requests being granted, a greater uptake of KIT days, and lower attrition rates amongst maternity returners, as a result of more supportive school cultures?

Where teacher retention, gender equality or teacher wellbeing are a priority for your setting, avoid leaping into a well-intentioned plan of action.  Instead, take the time to analyse the right data so that you know you are investing, rather than splurging, tight school budgets on the most impactful staffing solutions.



[1] https://www.mtpt.org.uk/research

[2] https://www.ascl.org.uk/gender-pay-gap

[3] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5a7c76a1ed915d6969f450bf/rrep777.pdf

[4] https://www.mtpt.org.uk/research

[5] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/651ff5572548ca0014ddee91/Bristol_Final_Report_1610.pdf

[6] https://www.mtpt.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/The-MTPT-Project-Coaching-Impact-Survey.pdf


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