Support staff: Cut technicians, increase your risks

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Jon Richards, national secretary, education, UNISON
How can we promote well paid careers in science when most laboratory technicians including schools ...

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The role of the technicians in our schools is vital to effective delivery of the curriculum, yet numbers are dwindling as school cuts bite, says Jon Richards

“Hi Sandy. The lift has broken down. You couldn’t come and have a look at it before we call the engineer in?”

Having the word technician in your job title is a guaranteed assumption that you know absolutely everything about all electric or mechanical objects, even if you are a specialist in IT or biology.

Also overheard: “Technicians? They just push trolleys around all day.”

Well if you have not seen a “trolley pusher” recently that is because from 2013 to 2017 there was a 12 per cent cut in the number of technicians and when the Department for Education issues statistics for 2018 – that percentage will most likely increase.

Funding shortages have seen school leaders cut technicians and/or technician hours.

But this has a direct knock-on effect on teachers, who are forced to perform tasks that they are not trained to do. For example, the vast majority of prep work in science is not taught to trainee teachers – they are just told to expect the technician to “do that bit”.

This might include making up chemical solutions or setting up practicals.

There is a massive skills shortage in schools and the reality is that if you cut your “techs” you increase your risk. This is heightened in those schools that have chosen not to be supported by the technical and safety specialist organisation CLEAPSS. Frankly these schools are asking for trouble.

Technicians are extremely cost-effective and many have years of valuable experience. Yet too many senior leaders do not understand their role. This probably is not helped by some techs not “selling themselves” or the vital tasks they undertake.

One thing senior leaders absolutely should know about is the “technician service factor”. Produced by CLEAPSS, this calculates how many science technician hours are required for the amount of science lessons taught per week.

It is vital that before any science technician cost-cutting measures are introduced, leaders refer to this formula. Not least because the Health and Safety Executive takes it into account if they ever have to look into an accident or near miss.

UNISON has begun to work with the science technician website Preproom. The majority of technicians on their forums report that they are significantly overworked according to the CLEAPSS formula, and with funding still tight the danger is that schools will try to make further cuts.

From our own surveys, staff also report that they are being asked to do work previously done by higher grade staff, mostly without the required additional training. And we are increasingly hearing of generic tech roles and people being asked to cover areas they are not trained in. All of this increases safety risks.

We have begun to work with Preproom, sponsoring its annual #TECHOGNITION week. This is an annual website-based event in March which highlights the work of science technicians.

The impact of this has been that some senior leadership teams have, for the first time, started to take an active interest in their technicians.

Technicians have also begun to feel more empowered and have started to use the guidance and benchmarks issued by the well respected Gatsby Foundation (2017) when having their appraisals.

We are also looking at other areas where we might raise the profile of our invaluable technical staff, including work with a coalition of technical organisations on professional standards, meaningful job descriptions, realistic career pathways and decent salaries.

The #TECHOGNITION genie is out of the bottle. A better respected and more confident group of technicians prepared to stand up for their profession can only be good for schools – but only if they are not cut to the bone.

  • Jon Richards is national secretary, education, at UNISON.

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Comments
We have been here before, Haven't we? This is like deja-vu. A quick bit of history. Back in the 90's, we indulged ourselves in NVQ's and BTEC's with the general thinking that achieving academic accreditation and competency would unlock the door to full and complete professional recognition, a proper career structure and alongside that a decent pay award. A few people may have benefited from this but overall nothing happened. Let's move forward to the 2000's. We had the Science Learning Centers. The quality of those course were mediocre to good but not really of high quality. If we jumped through those hoops this would lead to achieving our stated goals. Once again, a few more people may have benefited, but overall nothing happened. So once again we climb into our little time machine and move towards 2005. The SSSNB (School Support Staff Negotiating Body) was set up under the labour Government in collaboration with many trade unions, local authorities, employer organisations and MP's. Its aim was to develop a national pay and conditions framework for school support staff. What emerged from this even received Royal Ascent. then when the Conservative Government came to Power in what is famously known as the "Bonfire of the Quangos", The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP (now hoping to be our next PM) in one single act destroyed five years work. What this meant in principle was that This decision means that school support staff would continue to have their pay and conditions determined in accordance with existing arrangements whereby decisions would taken at a local level by employers. That last statement is the key to unlocking and solving this conundrum. Because throughout History, there is absolutely no pressure, legal or otherwise, placed on employers to really effect any change. Set against austerity and cutbacks to education, is it any wonder that the focus is upon the sharp end of education, that being teachers.
So, coming back to the present. The initiatives that are emerging at this time are all well and good. We have Gatsby raising the profile of technicians and also promoting greater recognition of the importance of our contributions to modern society. This is great to see. Its very encouraging to see that something is being done. However, employers will probably not be enthused about either reading its recommendations or even trying to implement them. I applaud preproom.org for what they have done and currently trying to do, once again and with a heavy heart, I have to ask myself how can all of this force the leaders of schools to do what is absolutely necessary?
The solution to this problem is mostly in the hands of our politicians, trade unions and local organizers. They need to come together once again to revisit the SSSNB. Pick it up from where it was last left off and develop it for support staff education and services for the next decade.

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Ash, Fiona, Amanda, Thanks for responding to my articles and re-inforcing the points in the article. I have made similar points to the government and sadly they don't seem to recognise the vital role you play as they are so focussed on teachers. We are looking at building a coalition of partner organisations like Preproom and others- so that together we can make a bigger impact. We will be doing some parliamentary work about technicians and placing some questions to highlight the concerns and raise the profile, followed by some of the wider work mentioned in the article. The message on funding is getting through to the government and I think the next government spending round will see increases in funding, though probably not enough - we need to make sure that a decent chunk gets directed to the workforce as well. We have been raising the issues with Labour's education team and they know there is a problem. Fiona, I hope you keep hanging in there - but understand the pressures. All the best Jon
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You articulate very well the plight off technicians in the whole off this country. Undervalued & underpaid and unappreciated. It’s about time we gave due recognition for the hardworking diligent group of technicians that deliver a quality of service without them where would Teachers & schools be.
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I am a senior technician in an ever shrinking prep department. I have 13 teachers to deal with and one other full time technician helping me. We used to be a team of 2 and a half technicians but when the part time technician left, she wasn’t replaced. The other full time technician is now leaving at the end of this school year and it looks like she may not be replaced. Even is she is, I am pretty certain that she will be only replaced on a part time basis. One of our cover supervisors has been approached and been asked if she would like to help out in the prep room. She has no experience whatsoever. It’s an absolute joke. I’ve worked in my school for nearly 20 years and I have never known it so bad or felt so miserable. Over the years, I’ve had extra teachers, extra labs and even KS5 science lessons added to my work load. All for no extra money! I agree that numbers are being cut because of a shortfall in money in schools, but the way technicians are treated is causing them to resign too. I’m biding my time and waiting to see what is going to happen, but I feel that my resignation will be on the principals desk within the next few weeks.
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How can we promote well paid careers in science when most laboratory technicians including schools are so under valued and poorly paid. We are looking our senior technician and being asked to cover their responsibilities plus be included on the whole school first aid room Rota. The prorated pay means a real time salary of just above minimum wage. I'd feel like i would rather work the extra weeks in a job with less expectations and no stress!
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