The CEO of Co-op’s food division is taking four months of unpaid leave to help her two sons revise for their exams. Jo Whitfield, 54, will step away from her role this May to support her children as they prepare to complete their GCSEs and A-Levels.
She previously said that although she “thoroughly enjoys” her high-profile job, her family comes first. Co-op said the opportunity to apply for an unpaid leave of absence is available to all its staff, and Whitfield is not the first to take it.
Whitfield, who was awarded a CBE last year for her services to retail during the pandemic, has headed up the retailer’s food business since 2017. She took home a £1.4m salary in 2020, according to Co-op’s annual report.
“I always knew that this year would be a big year with my boys undertaking key exams,” she said of her decision. “We decided as a family that in order to prepare for the inevitable pressure and emotional turmoil that would involve, when the time came, I would look to spend more time with them to ease the challenge.”
The group’s chief executive, Steve Murrells, will take over Whitfield’s responsibilities across its 2,600 stores during her absence.
“I can take this time away reassured by the knowledge we have a strong food leadership team who will keep moving our Co-op forward, working with support and guidance from Steve Murrells, our Co-op CEO,” Whitfield said.
In an interview with the Evening Standard in 2018, Whitfield said she believes that “to be great at work, you have to have your family life in great shape”.
Commenting on her work-life balance, she said her husband had become “the backbone of the family” since her role required her to do more international travel, and that she does not let her work affect weekends with her children.
Whitfield’s announcement comes as England’s exam regulator, Ofqual, said that grade boundaries for this year’s exams are likely to be lower than in previous years. GCSE and A-level exams were subject to cancellations throughout the pandemic, due to multiple national lockdowns, tiered restrictions and school closures.
In 2020 and 2021, students were awarded marks based on assessments by teachers instead of sitting exams.
While national exams will go ahead this year across the UK – for the first time since the pandemic began – they will be marked more generously to make up for the disruption to learning. Additionally, details of exam content have been released in advance to help pupils prepare.