Support staff: The challenges ahead


From school food to pupil medication, September is set to be a challenging time for school support staff. Christine Lewis explains.

Gone are the days when summer might be a time to slow the pace, catch up with neglected chores or actually free some head space for creative thinking. August can now be fraught with panic and down-time without the relaxation. 

Having to deal with the endless changes that must be implemented for the new academic year is not exactly libidinous behaviour in the south of France. There is now Department for Education (DfE) advice on timelines for the rich tapestry of different organisational tweaking that is required on a regular basis.

The SEN and disabilities Code of Practice comes into force in September and schools, colleges and local authorities are expected to have prepared themselves using the draft version. There is also new safeguarding advice, changes to curriculum and qualifications and the participation age will rise to 18 as well.

Of particular interest to UNISON is the legislation that will come into force on supporting pupils with medical conditions. This has been a discussion issue with government for a very long time and the guidance has had an elephantine gestation period. 

It has been difficult to deliver as the problem of supporting significant and varied health needs among increasing numbers of children and young people are complex. 

We focus on what must be golden rules. Governors and leadership teams must have a policy, plans, procedures and systems in place with which everyone in the school community is familiar and for which there is a named responsible person. All staff, on-site parents and visitors may be confronted with a medical emergency and must know how to respond.

One in five of the new pupil intake, perhaps more, is likely to have health support needs. While the most prevalent medical conditions at school: asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and allergies are likely to dominate, it is hard to anticipate the endless possibility of individual support required. Ideally, plans should be in place before a pupil starts so that the usual challenges of a new school or year are not intensified by pain, discomfort or embarrassment with peers and staff.

Over the years, our members have shared with us a scary library of horror stories about expectations placed upon them to provide medical support, often of a clinical type that should be performed by a health practitioner. They are often caught between fear of their own lack of medical competence and liability and desire to help the child or young person.

Very few staff are contracted to meet a range of unspecified health needs and those who volunteer should be ready, willing and able or it will rebound upon the pupil.

The school policy should be explicit about how staff are prepared for the role in terms of knowledge and skills, and advised by healthcare professionals.

Separate arrangements are necessary for activities outside of the classroom and risk-assessments must consider the health needs of individual pupils. The purpose of the DfE guidance is not just to remind governors and others of their liability, roles and responsibilities in supporting pupils with medical conditions, it is also about ensuring that their educational experience is not hampered and that those who offer to support them are equipped to do so.

Another September change is the introduction of universal free school meals for infants. There has been significant fragmentation of the service since the 1980s so this will present a continuum of challenges for schools and providers. Not least affected are lunchtime supervisors and catering staff who must also grapple with new food standards by January.

The School Food Plan, as the 2005 report before it, took for granted that staff would need to be recruited in greater numbers and trained for the reviewed service. Spending resources on staff in tight commercial contracts has not been a common practice, but cannot be avoided if the school plan is to be delivered. 

The School Food Plan website is a treasure trove of advice and guidance which should help steer schools on this new adventure ( Commitment is the watchword, remembering that the children and young people are worth it and so are the staff.

  • Christine Lewis is national officer for education at UNISON. Visit



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