The poor treatment of school office staff

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School office staff often find themselves underpaid, overworked and ignored. Christine Lewis explains.

There is no mileage in creating a hierarchy of the unrecognised among school staff, but when it comes to feeling valued, office staff are some way down the pecking order. 

We received 2,350 responses to a survey of administrators (50 per cent), business managers (20 per cent), finance officers (12 per cent), secretaries (nine per cent), assorted smaller groups and those who said “all of the above”. 

A third of respondents had jobs with multiple roles. One, for example, was an “administrative assistant, home-link worker, nurture group and therapeutic story-writing group leader”. Several others said “general factotum” and “all things to all people” and versatility and flexibility shone through the responses. 

Of issues identified, increased workload (93 per cent) just outstripped low pay (90 per cent) as the top concern, some saying that pressure (often because of academy status) was affecting their health. Eighty-four per cent experience work-related stress.

The nascent negotiating body SSSNB, abolished by the coalition government, (its return promised by Labour) acknowledged the high levels of unpaid overtime worked by support staff. Our survey shows two-thirds of respondents taking work home, clerking for governors gratis, or coming into school during the holidays. 

One respondent working extra hours also reported an average 13 unpaid days’ work when school is closed. Of those surveyed, 77 per cent were on term-time only contracts, that is, unwaged for about eight to 10 weeks (without the right to claim unemployment benefit) with reduced pay, holidays, pensions and other benefits.

According to the 2013 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, the average annual wage for a school secretary is £15,003; term-time contracts intensify the poverty trap. As well as the vexed issue of pay cuts and freezes, survey respondents referred to the introduction of zero-hour contracts; 74 per cent felt job insecurity.

Challenging behaviour, violence and allegations were of concern to 59 per cent of respondents, although some thought dealing with parents was a more pressing issue. Reference was made to threats, physical and verbal abuse, lack of respect and aggression – just under two-thirds in the survey were concerned about allegations from children, parents and carers. More than 40 per cent said that they were bullied by colleagues – forced to work out-of-hours, afraid of being ill and were refused “reasonable requests”. Dealing with pupils’ health needs is a significant challenge for support staff and 57 per cent identified it as an issue. 

Professional development opportunities were considered inadequate by 61 per cent of respondents, some of whom felt this reflected their inferior status. Some spoke of contrasting school cultures depending on the attitudes of those at the top and many said that they loved their jobs, despite everything.

The visibility of support staff is often impaired by a focus on pedagogy and result churn. Appreciating the whole school team goes hand-in-hand with appreciating the whole child – their welfare, relationships and wider life. 

UNISON has now launched the “Biggest Ever” survey of all support staff and in the first 24 hours received nearly 10,000 replies. These are people who want to be heard. The survey closes on Monday (October 20) and the results will be published on November 28, when we celebrate Stars in Our Schools, those behind the scenes as well as in front of the class.

Our focus is the whole school community and we ask teachers, parents, pupils, heads and governors to join us. Details of preparations for the day and on-going commentary can be found online.

Further information
The UNISON survey: http://svy.mk/1rXhkDA


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