Support staff are in crisis

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union

Support staff are the glue that holds a school together and yet are facing over-work, under-pay and redundancies as government funding cuts bite, says Dr Mary Bousted

It took some time, but I think we can safely say that teacher workload is an issue which is now understood by politicians, parents and the public.

It is finally generally accepted that teaching is hard work, with long hours and stressful days. Even education secretary Damian Hinds has identified reducing teacher workload as his top priority.

I wonder, however, if the general public knows just how hard school support staff work and how little they are paid for the increasingly professional roles they undertake in our schools?

The picture that emerges from our first support staff survey was one of over-work, stress and rising demands on support staff – which are in no way matched by their pay nor by the recognition that should be given to them in schools.

Support staff are working an increasing number of unpaid hours. The survey revealed that three quarters of those who responded work additional hours. Two-thirds said that they are never paid or otherwise compensated for this additional work.

But it is not only the amount of work, but also the level of responsibility – which is neither properly acknowledged, supported, or remunerated in too many schools – that is causing support staff to be concerned.

Support staff told us that they are regularly teaching whole classes while being employed as higher level teaching assistants. Support staff told us that they are covering teachers’ long-term sickness. One wrote: “There’s not enough time for planning or marking. I often take work home.”

Support staff are regularly being required to plan nurture and intervention groups; to liaise with teachers to update student profiles and strategies; to write individual education plans; to run intervention groups, among many other demands. And too often support staff are not being given time to undertake these highly professional and demanding tasks.

A great majority (82 per cent) of the support staff who work additional hours said they did so due to cuts in teaching and support staff in their school.

Indeed, for many, cuts in teacher numbers meant they are doing work which parents would expect to be done by teachers.

Graham Easterlow, the National Education Union’s executive member for support staff, calls this the “cascade” of work from teachers to support staff. And this is getting worse with the relentless rise of teachers leaving the profession earlier in their careers.

Sadly, it is also the case that as schools are facing real-terms cuts
to their funding, support staff are on the frontline when school leaders have to make impossible decisions about how to cut their school’s budget. Support staff numbers fell by 14,300 between November 2016 and November 2017.

Cuts in support staff affect the most needy and vulnerable children and young people in our schools. Those of you who watched the recent BBC2 fly on-the-wall documentary School, which charted the fortunes of Castle School Education Trust, a three-school MAT in south Gloucestershire, could not have missed the despondency of teachers who saw pupils who needed help and support, struggling.

One school in the MAT had lost half its support staff. Those who still had their jobs at the school worried that they were failing to support pupils who, for a range of reasons, were not coping with school.

Children with SEND were being left unsupported in mainstream classes, unable to properly access the curriculum. Children with emotional and behavioural difficulties were staying at home, missing their education, because the school did not have the staff to ensure that they felt secure and safe in classrooms, corridors and the playground.

The support staff filmed in the making of the series openly and honestly admitted that they could not meet the scale of the challenge and that children were falling through the gaps left because there was, simply, not enough of them.

A head of year 7 bravely confessed that he had spent “only 10 minutes” with a pupil who was struggling to integrate into her year group, when he “should have spent 10 hours with her”.

He was, clearly, a dedicated professional battling, without adequate support, to do his job well.

In the end, education ministers have a choice. They can continue to ignore school support staff and continue to turn a deaf ear to support staff demands for the establishment of a national negotiating body.

Or education ministers can choose to value and reward the immense contribution that school support staff make to our education system. They are the glue that hold schools together. Let’s pay them properly and treat them well.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union.


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