Emma Sheppard portrait

Written by Emma Sheppard

Emma founded The MTPT Project, the UK's charity for parent teachers, in 2016 when on maternity leave with her first child. She has 12 years experience as an English teacher, Lead Practitioner and ITT Lead, and now runs The MTPT Project full time.

Of all the protected characteristics, considering the relevance of ‘marriage and civil partnership’ to our education sector might leave us scratching our heads a little.  In its most obvious form, discrimination according to this characteristic can play out in interview or progression scenarios where prejudices around employees’ stability, current or future priorities or flight risk might play in their favour, or against.  There are also overlaps to consider here with the protected characteristics of pregnancy and maternity, and sexual orientation, especially given the welcome changes to marriage law in the UK over the last decade.

However, recent research from The MTPT Project has revealed that being married or in a long-term partnership can have an impact on teacher retention, particularly amongst heterosexual mothers.  In our three-year study into female teachers aged 30-39 who had stayed in, or left teaching, relationships with husbands and partners played a part in teachers’ decisions to leave the profession.  But what nuance is their behind these findings, and what can we do to avoid discrimination towards teachers in marriages or civil partnerships if this variable seems to spell out bad news?

Firstly, it’s important to note that this research is ongoing: The MTPT Project are yet to release a report on the role that husbands or partners play in keeping teachers in the profession, or supporting their progression.  What’s more, far from instigating teachers’ decisions to leave the classroom, husbands and partners were found to act more symbolically as a mirror, or foil to other much larger issues that affect our workforce, whether teachers are married or not.

In this aspect of the study, interviews revealed the following:

Where teachers in the study were the lower wage earner, decisions around their husband / partner’s job took priority.  So when it came to relocation, reduction of hours, or taking on a heavier domestic load, a teacher was lost to the profession because… well, her husband’s job was more important – it paid the bills!  But isn’t this simply a reflection of the gender pay gap that persists both in education and British society as a whole, and the continuing likelihood for women – particularly mothers – to take on the majority of caring and domestic duties?

When teachers in the study were stressed and burnt out, it was their husbands who were both negatively impacted, and who provided the voice of reason and compassion.  Interview participants told stories of interventions around mental health, improved relationships once they’d stopped teaching and generally happier family units.  But aren’t husbands simply providing the echo here to persistent reports around poor wellbeing that pervade the entire profession?

When teachers in the study had the time – often during maternity leave or school holidays – to reflect and look for an escape route, they compared their jobs with their partners’.  Even when they saw a lower wage, they saw greater flexibility, better benefits packages, higher levels of praise, and better work-life balance.  But doesn’t this simply hold a mirror up to the rigidity and exhausting workload we continue to find in some of our schools that make life particularly difficult for the 54% of our workforce who have childcare responsibilities, and which prematurely drives our young teachers out of the profession in droves?

Just over half of our population in England and Wales are married or in a civil partnership, so discrimination against an employee or interview candidate on the grounds of marriage or civil partnership would be (to pinch a phrase from a local dad in the park) ‘pissing against the wind’.  We’d end up with very few teachers left if we discriminated in this way!  However, The MTPT Project’s study shows that the overlap between the three protected characteristics of sex, pregnancy and maternity, and marriage and civil partnership can leave women in particular needing greater systemic supports from our schools – support that would benefit every member of staff, regardless of their demographic.

Want to reduce the risk of losing the married mothers on your team?  Work towards addressing the gender pay gap in your school or academy trust; provide greater flexibility; reduce workload; listen to feedback to understand the practical steps that will improve colleagues’ wellbeing, and provide extended paternity leave packages that help to share out the domestic load from the moment that baby is born.

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