Support staff: It’s time to act

Written by: Sarah Duncan | Published:

School support staff are being hit by falling budgets, low morale and heavy workloads. Sarah Duncan urges the Scottish government to act

UNISON Scotland is very conscious that our school support staff members come back to school this year with the dispiriting prospect of more argument and confusion about the structure of education at government level.

Meanwhile they have to get on with the day job despite continued cuts and ever greater demands. The Scottish government’s focus is entirely on structural reform, ignoring the report written for them by the OECD, responses to their own consultation and the evidence of the impact of £300 million in cuts to school budgets since 2012.

The Scottish government is pressing ahead with the Governance Review, which emphasises structural reform to create large regional collaboratives to oversee schools. UNISON, like most other consultees, believes this is a distraction from the main issue, which is the pressing need to properly resource effective action to reduce the attainment gap for young people.

Tackling the attainment gap effectively requires the whole education team. All staff need access to high-quality training and adequate resources. Shuffling around reporting lines and accountabilities doesn’t get a single additional pupil support assistant into schools or release anyone to attend training on how to deal with challenging behaviour in the classroom.

The governance review is not a harmless distraction from the main issue. The clear preference is for much greater centralisation in education; the three regional education collaboratives will be headed up by a director who will be accountable not to your local council, and therefore you as a voter, but to Education Scotland, an unelected quango.

UNISON Scotland responded to the first stage of the consultation stating our strong preference for schools to continue to be the responsibility of local authorities because of the greater democratic local accountability and efficiency through economies of scale.

At the same time as centralising overall control and removing democratic accountability, the governance proposals talk about decentralising day-to-day operational authority down to schools and individual headteachers. The OECD called for Scotland to improve the middle, but instead the Scottish government is weakening it. We are concerned that this will put further pressure on school support staff. These jobs are the first to go when cuts have to be made in devolved school management budgets.

The experience of academies, trusts and free schools in England shows the danger of breaking up the current system to allow schools more autonomy over how they employ staff, and UNISON will fiercely resist any attempt to introduce the broken English model to Scottish schools.

Teachers have national terms and conditions but the staff working alongside them in the education team have conditions of employment that vary from council to council. There is a danger that, if individual schools are free to employ staff and decide on terms and conditions, the budget pressures will drive down pay for support staff.
UNISON school support members are clear that the key issue for school education in Scotland is not governance but budget cuts, with more than £300 million in cuts over the last five years, and likely more to come. It is stating the obvious that investment in schools and the development of education teams drives attainment and closes the attainment gap. Changing structures just focuses attention internally on the organisation itself rather than on the actual delivery of services.

The importance of better funding was put into sharp relief by UNISON Scotland’s report Hard Lessons: A survey of Scotland’s school support staff (January 2017). Hundreds of UNISON members working in education responded:

  • 54 per cent of support staff say budgets have been cut.
  • 40 per cent carry out unpaid work to meet workloads.
  • 60 per cent say morale is low.
  • 80 per cent say workloads are heavier.

These figures are not surprising because there are 6,707 more pupils than 2010 in Scottish schools, but 1,841 fewer support staff and 1,389 fewer teachers.

Beneath the shocking headline figures, there is some stark detail which shows the impact of these cuts. Library staff numbers in secondary schools have been reduced from 334 to 249; sadly it is young people from the most deprived backgrounds that need school libraries and librarians the most, they are least likely to have access to computers, printers, research and space at home for general studying.

The Scottish government has also set improving STEM education as a priority and yet we have 251 fewer technicians in our schools to support this type of learning.

One of our members who responded said: “Schools have fewer supplies, they are not being thoroughly cleaned regularly, management have taken one cleaner out of each school and the work is split between the remaining staff.

We used to clean classrooms on a daily basis – now this is twice a week. It’s absurd that children are sitting at dirty desks and classrooms are now not as clean as they should be.”

Members report increased levels of challenging behaviour – and in some cases, violence – in schools.

The report also highlights a high level of anxiety from classroom assistants who are expected to undertake a range of personal care and medical interventions. Many staff feel they have not been given adequate training and proper assessment of the risks that these tasks involve.

There is a rare glimmer of good news, because we are close to having much better guidance for school staff on healthcare needs of young people in schools.

This topic has caused confusion in school settings, with some staff being expected to undertake tasks they are neither trained nor feel competent in.

UNISON Scotland has been involved in drafting the new guidance, which is now in the final stages of consultation, and we hope that it will be formally issued to schools in the first term of the 2017/18 school year. The draft guidance contains the clear statement that school staff providing healthcare should receive appropriate training from a health professional or an accredited source.


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