Support staff: More than just ‘the back office’

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Jon Richards, national secretary for education, UNISON
Your points are understood and generally are correct. However, from a personal perspective, I get ...

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Back office staff get little credit for the wide-ranging work they do and suggestions they can be easily cut are ill-informed, says Jon Richards

Last year, while ranting about private companies seeking to run “back office services”, I pointed out that school office staff do a lot more than they are given credit for (Protecting the ‘back office’, SecEd, November 2016:

The subsequent laughable suggestion by right-wing think-tank Reform that receptionists could be replaced by automated entry systems (yeah, all they do is sit there and let people in and out...) pushed me to request a survey of school office staff so we could highlight the valuable work they do.

This is increasingly important, as in January the Department for Education (DfE) mapped out where it thinks potential savings could come from.

Around £750 million (out of the £3 billion it expects schools to find) would be from “other staff costs” (i.e. not classroom-based staff). The DfE also suggests in its recent guidance on school workforce planning, that schools might consider sharing or merging “non-classroom” posts.

We also know that when pushed on where they might find savings, senior leaders identify this group of staff at the top of the list and indeed there is a host of job cuts taking place. In the context of austerity something has to be top of heads’ lists, but the approach of different headteachers and academy trust CEO ranges from thought-through action planning to knee-jerk easy option.

So what would schools and pupils miss if school office staff go? More than 1,400 office staff responded to our survey showing the frontline tasks they do: 88 per cent deal directly with parent concerns, 74 per cent do school trip admin, 71 per cent run ID checks, 65 per cent manage attendance, 63 per cent are involved in pupil welfare, 62 per cent monitor medical records, and 56 per cent help parents to fill in forms.

And of great interest: 55 per cent administer medicines and 53 per cent perform first aid.

Asked what impact they felt they had in the schools, 76 per cent said they reduced teacher workload, 75 per cent helped with school-parent relationships, 51 per cent saved the school money, 46 per cent supported pupil health needs and 31 per cent said they made vulnerable learners safer. Furthermore, office staff say they regularly work additional unpaid hours each week (74 per cent).

One respondent sums things up nicely: “I’m frustrated that the workload has increased but pay remains the same. Jobs that redundant colleagues used to do have ended up on my desk and my job description says they can be done by me even though they were someone else’s responsibility. Management makes teaching staff the priority with little thought to the admin/support staff.”

Ignorance of the work office staff do has become increasingly evident. We have recently declared disputes with several national multi-academy trusts as they attempted to push through ill-judged cuts to school office and facilities staff to save money.

As these proceeded we have had to correct numerous inaccuracies and assumptions. Two of these disputes ended up at ACAS after joint union campaigns supported by staff, governors and parents, and only here was a sensible agreement reached. Our sister unions have been very supportive as they know when a school office worker is made redundant someone else will have to pick up their work.

Of course this will all be sorted soon – the election manifestos suggest everyone was feeling generous towards education, no doubt prompted by the great campaigns run by parent groups and school unions.

The least generous offer was from the Conservatives, but even they said they would dig out an extra billion, which means real-term cuts should only be 2.6 per cent per-pupil by 2022 – so that’s okay then...

Cutting office staff is not easy and for the DfE to suggest billions of pounds of cuts are possible without an impact on outcomes is fantasy land.

Your points are understood and generally are correct. However, from a personal perspective, I get seriously angst and grieved when commentators use the term "support staff" to highlight or focus on one section of this group. Support Staff (or as prefer to refer to ourselves as non-teaching staff) is the umbrella for Science technicians, cleaners, kitchen staff, caretakers and office staff etc., It would have been nice if you had taken a moment to show that you understand that point.
Nevertheless, non-teaching staff (or as you prefer to say support staff) are generally thought of as the "low hanging fruit" on the tree. As such we are easy pickings. However, as a qualified manager myself, i would suggest that many head teachers are simply not trained to manage change in an organisation of such complexity. Head teachers make such changes without properly considering the risks and also fail to provide the necessary support to affected teams and individuals. As a Science technician, I am only too acutely affected by this due to the loss of technician support. Headteachers over-rely, in my subjective opinion on accountants (or bean counters as I prefer to call them).
A respected colleague once visited an academy about two years ago not in his official capacity as a Health and Safety adviser, but as a family member. During a discussion with the academies financial manager, he asked why there was only one single science technician supporting science in such a large school. The managers reply was shocking and serves as a reminder to my previous point about head teachers over-relying upon accountants advice.
"We cannot afford Professional Science Technicians. Teachers should be/are qualified and competent. So why can they not set up their own science practicals?
Is it any wonder why we are now seeing an increase in accidents in schools over the past few years

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This school has asked for support staff to consider working less hours, Voluntarily, to save the school money, the work however remains the same, would they ask this of teachers? I think not. 2 years ago the support staff jobs were cut to the bone with many redundancies, this is another cost cutting exercise without the school having to pay out.
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