Support staff: A tough year ahead…

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Jon Richards, national secretary for education, UNISON

Support staff are on the frontline as funding cuts take hold and school leaders are forced to make unpalatable decisions, warns Jon Richards

I have spent the start of this year out and about meeting activists and members, getting a feel of the main issues and planning our work for 2017.

I was a branch secretary many years ago so know how much voluntary work our activists put in. Consequently, I am always keen that nationally our work makes things easier for our activists on the frontline. This year that is going to be very tough.

Unsurprisingly, funding is at the forefront of people’s minds. The last couple of years, when the Department for Education (DfE) workforce data for England has come out, I have pointed out to my National Schools Committee the overall increase in support staff numbers. In return, members of the committee have expressed amazement, as all they have seen is constant restructuring and job cuts.

It is true that the data has begun to show reductions in support staff numbers in secondary schools, but this is more than covered by the numbers of new staff in primaries as a result of increased pupil numbers.

However, I will be very surprised if the 2016 headcount doesn’t show an overall decrease in staff. The recently issued data from Scotland certainly shows that support staff jobs are disappearing at a pace.

As our school representatives begin to comprehend the uncertainties of the new national funding formula, frozen national funding and the new Apprenticeship levy, they are tearing their hair out as they wonder how they are going to cope.

And hearing Jonathan Slater, lead civil servant at the DfE, say that schools can save more money without harming performance just enhances the impression of a Whitehall that is out of touch with reality.

Our annual school support staff survey last year (with more than 14,000 responses) saw almost a quarter of respondents reporting recent redundancies or redundancies to come. More than a fifth had vacant posts and a quarter had cut budgets for books or other resources. Another quarter reported cuts to school maintenance or school improvement. Possibly worse of all, nearly a quarter had seen cuts to SEN support. And this isn’t going to have an impact on pupils?

We don’t blame senior leadership teams for this mess (well not always). Over the years funding for schools has become ever more centralised as government sought to take control. Well, with power comes responsibility and as government chooses how much it spends and how it distributes the funds, they can’t pretend that this is someone else’s fault.

Our representatives are put on the frontline of trying to save people’s livelihoods, battling with senior leaders to save jobs – senior leaders who we know don’t want to make these cuts in the first place.

The government knows this and so it is no surprise that we are also seeing attempts to undermine facility time for our activists.

Under the guise of efficiencies and saving taxpayers’ money, the government is pushing local authorities and school employers to review and reduce facility time funding.

The government knows this will affect our ability to offer an alternative view. This ignores the evidence that unions in the workplace end up saving money in the long term as early intervention prevents disputes and legal challenges.

Fewer support staff will mean increased stress, a greater workload for those remaining and teachers having to pick up their work.

If our representatives have less time to work on problems this will further increase pressure in the system, which can only mean more industrial unrest.

To round off this grim new year message we have noticed that Baroness Wolf is asking Parliamentary questions about numbers of support staff and their costs. I can feel in my waters another dispiriting row with self-proclaimed “public service reformers” claiming inefficiency and overstaffing, providing juicy click bait for the Daily Mail. Let the battle commence.


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