The forgotten support staff


Despite being crucial to raising standards, some key support staff roles are often overlooked, says Christine Lewis.

In debates about teaching assistants and their impact on pupils, other learning support staff such as librarians and technicians sometimes feel overlooked. 

Long before the advent of new roles like cover supervisors and higher level teaching assistants, these staff were sharing their expertise with pupils and teachers. But as the workforce has expanded, some of these school professionals have come to feel eclipsed despite their significant contribution.

Libraries are at the heart of learning and the best education settings maintain a professional service. Too often, short-sighted decision-makers are closing and cutting services, skimping on stock and staff. 

There are a number of myths in play: encouraging children to “read for pleasure” is an optional extra, the internet has replaced the research function of libraries, or the digital age has made it possible to employ unqualified staff rather than library and information professionals.

Libraries are egalitarian environments and have the power to diminish disadvantage, not least in schools. Away from classroom pressures and assisted by a professional with a different agenda, children can not only read for pleasure but begin to find joy in the written word, improving literacy and attitudes to learning.

More mature library-users can develop the ability to find, recognise and analyse information, developing their cognitive skills, problem-solving and independent thinking, with the librarian as intermediary. Library staff can reach out into departments, tailoring resources to support the curriculum and, in some cases, team-teaching. They also often lead on understanding and exploiting new technology.

Devaluing the potential impact of this professional group in school, denying them CPD and depressing their salaries, is a sadly missed trick.

Elsewhere, our recent survey of technicians in schools made for grim reading as they listed their grievances, not least low levels of pay (74 per cent earn less than £20,000 a year) and term-time only contracts (nearly 65 per cent). 

The technicians, who were mainly in science or ICT, reported tension between quality and quantity of work because of heavy workloads, and health and safety issues (lifting, ventilation, chemical substances, stress). Some felt under-resourced and poorly managed, while others were aggrieved by the attitude of colleagues. Many felt a lack of respect, understanding or recognition for the skills and professionalism of the job. Training and career development were frequently said to be in short supply.

As techniques become more complex, some technicians report that they have had to struggle to keep updated to industry standards in their own time.

One beacon of light shines from the Technician Pathways project, which aims to boost the status and skills of science technicians through registration with professional bodies. To register, a technician must provide evidence of a defined set of skills and a commitment to maintaining competence, working within professional codes.

It is a new award developed by the Science Council and provides three levels of professional standards: Registered Technician at Level 3, Registered Scientist, and then Chartered Scientist. Employers should leap at the opportunity to identify the skill levels of potential technical staff, ensure they are updated professionally, governed by professional codes of conduct and practising safely.

But will they? It is a peculiarity of British life that unlike many other countries, we fail to appreciate the importance of professional and technical groups and often dodge professional recognition, preferring to get staff on the cheap. Government continues to veto support for training and career development of the wider workforce in schools and ultimately it is children and young people who will pay the price.


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