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We’re on a road to nowhere: Women aged 30–39 – why are they the largest demographic to leave teaching every year?

Written by: Emma Shepard and Gemma Campbell
10 min read
Emma Sheppard, Founder of MTPT Project, UK
Gemma Campbell (CTeach), Teaching and Learning Mentor, Coleg Llandrillo, UK

Teacher recruitment, retention and progression are of increasing concern in the profession, as shown on Twitter with the latest NfER data analysis by Jack Worth (2022). The following article provides a snapshot of some of the research undertaken by the MaternityTeacher PaternityTeacher Project. This research specifically focuses on mothers who have left teaching, so does not include experiences of those aged 30 to 39 who are not mothers or mothers who have stayed in teaching.

This article reports some of the findings of the mixed method phenomenological study to better understand mothers’ experiences in the education sector and gain an insight via qualitative approaches alongside published figures from government findings. It explores and reviews the comments that fall into the category of professional development opportunities or progression, and in general points to the fact that when these are restricted for mothers in this age bracket, they leave the teaching profession, as they are ‘on the road to nowhere’. The MTPT Project is not a research organisation; however, we are the largest network and only charity in the UK exploring the motherhood penalty in education and addressing some of its causes and effects as well as giving new parent teachers a voice. 

Literature review 

Research suggests that women’s career progress slows when they become mothers, comparative to fathers and to both men and women who do not have children. According to the Government Equalities Office, there are larger pay penalties due to taking time out of work for maternity leave and moving to part-time work in order to manage the competing demands of work and families. This study indicated that mothers either experience ‘career stalling’, reduce their status at work or find that they have a lower chance of getting promotion, which slows their progress unless they move organisations. These findings highlight how career stagnation for women with children must be reviewed through family-friendly policies that are complemented and supported by effective career development (Workplace and Gender Equality Research Programme, 2019).

Within the education sector, the school workforce census (SWCNS) data (DfE, 2022) shows that men reached headteacher roles faster than women, leading to the much-reported gender inequity in school leadership, particularly at secondary level. In primary schools, it took on average 14 years for a man to become a headteacher but 18 years for a woman to become a headteacher. This rate of progression is interesting when taking into account the fact that half of the incoming teacher workforce are aged 25 or under, and the most likely age for teachers to become first-time mothers is 30 to 35 (Harkness et al., 2019). A male primary head, therefore, is more likely to secure this leadership post aged 34 to 39, the exact age bracket where women are most likely to be taking and returning from their first period of maternity leave, and when they are most vulnerable to the motherhood penalty.

MTPT findings

In our initial survey of 498 women who had left teaching aged 30 to 39, one of the questions asked participants to identify the factors that had influenced their decision to leave. The most common answers found repeated comments surrounding ‘lack of progression opportunities in teaching’, ‘lack of professional development opportunities’ and ‘progression opportunity in another industry’. 

With 55 per cent of participants referring to a sense of stagnation in their career progression or feeling trapped, it was felt that this required further research. The findings from both the ‘Employment pathways and occupational change after childbirth’ report (Harkness et al., 2019) and the ‘Mid-career teachers: A mixed methods scoping study of professional development, career progression and retention’ report (Booth et al., 2021) – which state that if mid-career teachers do not have ‘the confidence to experiment with the intention of increasing their impact’ or cannot ‘make changes in their context by seeking promotion or becoming an “activist”, then they “grow stale”’ (See and Morris, 2021, p. 117)– are almost an exact reflection of the MTPT findings (see Table 1).

Of the 28 participants who were mothers who had left teaching aged 30 to 39, who took part in our qualitative telephone interviews, 11 either chose one of these options or commented on progression and professional development opportunities (or lack thereof), in response to the request to expand on the following reasons for leaving selected in the initial survey:

  •  lack of flexible or part-time working arrangements in teaching
  •  a desire for change
  •  needing a break, i.e. you intend on returning to the classroom in the future
  •  lifestyle choice, i.e. wanting to work fewer hours, seeking a better work–life balance or pursuing other interests
  •  lack of job satisfaction
  •  school culture
  •  workload
  •  childcare logistics.


What was quite remarkable across the interviews was the similarity in the semantics used to describe this experience. Participants used the same or almost the same words and phrases as each other. In some interviews, participants fell back into the same semantics, repeating and emphasising the dominance of this feeling of stagnation, lack of progression or feeling trapped. While initially thematic analysis (TA) was used for the transcription, the richness of the content, with such convergence and divergence with the smaller sample, allowed a more idiographic focus, which is often missing with the large-scale studies of the school workforce census

Employment pathways and occupational

change after childbirth (Harkness et al., 2019)

Examples of comments from

 the 28 participants

‘These returners risk becoming stuck in

their job role, with limited career

progression.’ (p. 9)

‘… even when women return to the same

job, we show that they are far less likely

than their male counterparts to progress

at work.’ (p. 10)

‘hadn’t changed’

‘stay still’


‘got to wait’




‘nowhere for me to go’

‘get stuck’

‘on their return to work women… their

careers may progress at a slower rate

than those of childless women or men.’ (p. 6)

‘very slow progress’

‘progress was very slow’

‘lack of progression’

‘wasn’t improving’

‘harder to progress’

‘For new mothers – but not fathers –

staying with the same employer is

associated with a lower risk of

downward occupational mobility but

also with lower chances of progressing.’ (p. 9)

‘can’t have it’

‘couldn’t go’

‘not possible to get to

another school’

‘couldn’t find anyone who

would take that’

Table 1: Comparison of MTPT findings and previous research 

When these mother-teachers ‘get stuck’, start to ‘feel very stale’ or find themselves unable to improve, due to factors outside of their control, whose responsibility is it, therefore, to support their progression and forward movement?

The comments from participants in this report about professional development, progression or lack thereof, and the impact that this had on their decision to stay in teaching, fall into eight categories:

A sense of stagnation in career progression or feeling trapped

I started to feel very stale in what I was doing because I had been doing it successfully for a number of years and felt I needed the change for my own professional development.


Progression being limited by their school or budgets

Within the school I was in, due to budget again, because basically, we weren’t allowed to do any sort of CPD courses outside the school, and there wasn’t that much opportunity for progression.


Choosing or being forced into demotions as working parents

I was a secondary school teacher and I went back to start teaching last September as an ordinary teacher of history. Before that I was the head of history.


Progression and flexible working

There’s nowhere for me to go with progression because you will not, if we apply for things part time, as part-timers, you’re telling us we can’t have it because we’re part time.


Experiences of discrimination linked to progression

My head of department was not very supportive across the board to me and to other members of staff… they always used it as part of performance management – you weren’t doing a good job, you wouldn’t be able to move up because you had children.


Aspirations and ambitions as parent-teachers

Before I went back on maternity leave and in the first month after going back after maternity leave, I was really looking forward to going back and quite ambitious about what I wanted to achieve in teaching: getting a promotion, that kind of thing.


A sense of fulfilment associated with progression

I also recognise that for me to feel fulfilled in my work, I want more than classroom teaching.


Experiences of progression in their new careers

I have got potential for the future. They seem to be good at investing in staff. So even though it’s not a very exciting role at the moment, I think there probably is the potential to be supported in developing and progressing and getting promoted in the future.


These comments are at odds with the EHRC’s finding that 17 per cent of employers thought that ‘pregnant women and new mothers are less interested in career progression and promotion’ (Adams et al., 2016, p. 61). The repeated use of ‘needed’ suggests that this ‘professional development’ or ‘potential for… progression’ is strongly linked to their sense of professional purpose and fulfilment. There is also a sense of frustration here, prompted by a lack of recognition in the form of career progression. Jenny says that she had been performing ‘successfully for a number of years’ and yet she did not see this rewarded by ‘change’ or even the promise of ‘potential’ change. Stacey’s frustrations at being part time are again echoing a lack of progression opportunities due to a lack of flexible working opportunities.

Rochelle and others refer to the loss of status or lack of professional development as impacting their sense of job fulfilment, echoing the 2019 findings from the NFER (Sharp et al., 2019), which found that professional development opportunities, a sense of being valued by leadership and management and being in a leadership role are all factors that contribute to teacher engagement, and therefore teacher retention. 

The Teacher Development Trust (TDT) have found that ‘carefully designed’ CPD opportunities that ‘have a strong focus on pupil outcomes have a significant impact on student achievement’ (Higgins et al., 2015, p. 10), which is why the DfE expect teachers to ‘take responsibility’ for ‘keep[ing] their knowledge and skills… up-to-date’ (2016, p. 3). Booth et al. (2021) reiterate that, for all teachers, professional development should be ‘tailored to individual teachers’ particular context and needs’ and that personal conditions such as ‘motivation, autonomy, self-

efficacy’ and contextual conditions such as ‘in-school support’ are ‘vital for professional development to be successful’ (Booth et al. 2021, p. 299) . However, the ‘learning needs’ of mid-career colleagues are often ‘unmet’, potentially leading to teachers plateauing, disengaging and leaving the profession altogether (Booth et al. 2021, p. 299).

Had school leaders provided these new mothers time within the school day to improve their craft, or the headspace to reflect on what change they wanted and how to secure this, or the time to explore what new job might be desirable for them, could they have retained these teachers more happily within the education system for longer?

Ultimately, the unsustainable workloads that plague our education system came up as the number one reason why female teachers aged 30 to 39 leave teaching. The second is that women still ‘carry out an overall average of 60% more unpaid work than men’, with ‘mothers on maternity leave’ (Office for National Statistics, 2016)  doing the most unpaid work . These two systemic issues can be added to the list started by the above participants (absence, leadership and management’s perception of colleagues, lack of opportunity in existing structures, time) of things outside of mother-teachers’ control when trying to progress or develop professionally, either in their own or in a new school.

There is a whole list of practical suggestions for schools/individuals on ways in which to best support this demographic in the original report. However, one suggestion is the importance of communicating with mother-teachers regarding their professional development needs or ambitions at key points over the early parenting period:

  • during their expectancy
  • when vacancies, training or promoted positions arise during their maternity leave
  • within the first two terms of their return to work
  • on an annual basis, as part of the school’s performance review process.


Since 2017, the MTPT Project has been conducting research into teachers on maternity leave and women aged 30 to 39 who have either stayed in or left teaching. The articles informing our research, as well as the infographics created from the available literature reviews, are accessible through our individual membership available at

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