Support staff deserve better pay as well

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Jon Richards, national secretary, UNISON

While new teachers are now being promised £30,000 salaries, support staff have had their pay suppressed for too long and merit a decent pay rise, says Jon Richards

I make no apologies for UNISON’s recently submitted 10 per cent pay claim for school support staff (UNISON, 2019).

This bold claim covers all support staff – including teaching assistants, business managers, technicians, cleaners and caretakers – in academies as well as local authority linked schools.

It has been presented alongside our sister unions Unite and GMB (the National Education Union is not recognised to negotiate for school support staff).

The claim – which is for the year from next April – also calls for the minimum wage in schools to be £10 an hour, for improvements in some terms and conditions, and a review of workloads. The latter is important as the Department for Education (DfE) seems only interested in the workload of teachers.

Furthermore, we want to see a review of the workplace causes of stress and mental health issues.

Initial reactions to our claim varied from “even that won’t make up for the money I have lost in recent years’’ to “are you having a laugh?”. We are not having a laugh.

Over the last decade support staff wages have plummeted in value. Our members are some of the lowest paid of the public sector, and we are determined that they should not be any longer.

For example, on average, teaching assistants (Level 3) have seen a real-terms fall in their wages of more than 20 per cent.

The government’s current informal “going rate” for public sector pay increases seems to be around two per cent. However the pay review bodies bounced them into higher awards for some “professional” staff – 2.75 per cent in the case of teachers.

This still falls well short of average pay increases across the economy of around 3.9 per cent, as reported by the Office of National Statistics in August.

The awards also fall short of the Retail Price Index (RPI) measure of inflation. Interestingly the government says that the RPI is “no longer the best measure of inflation”.

Surprisingly they prefer the much lower Consumer Price Index (CPI) rate – although they still use RPI to calculate things like air passenger duty, alcohol duty, gaming duty, regulated rail fares, student loan interest rates, tobacco duty, vehicle excise duty, and so on. So when it suits...

Historically when public sector wages fall behind the private sector, which they have been for several years now, there is a necessary period of catch up. And new prime minister Boris Johnson is certainly giving the impression that pay increases are on the agenda.

Just before term began the news that had been promised and then leaked to the media was finally officially confirmed – Mr Johnson has pledged that his government will invest more than £14 billion in primary and secondary education between now and 2022/23.

Downing Street said that every secondary school will receive a minimum of £5,000 per-pupil next year. Of course this does depend on whether the government survives in these rather unpredictable times.

Hot on the heels of this announcement was news from the Department for Education (DfE, 2019) that salaries for new teachers are to rise to £30,000 by 2022/23 and that the government will be fully funding increased contributions into the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.

So – we now await similar good news for school support staff...

During the summer, Matt Hancock MP, one of Mr Johnson’s key allies, said: “Now that there’s money available we need to show the public sector some love – they do a brilliant job for the country. People in the public sector need to be properly rewarded for the brilliant job they do. Higher pay, not higher taxes, means a pay rise for everyone, including in the public sector.”

Of course fine words butter no parsnips and while new education secretary Gavin Williamson will set out his proposal to increase teachers’ starting salaries by up to £6,000 in a remit letter to the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) ahead of next year’s pay award, support staff are looking on in earnest hope.

I have sent a copy of our claim to the DfE and asked them to factor in any pay increase into future spending.

However, when I attempted to engage with them over the last two-year pay deal, they were surprisingly off-hand and turned down my offer to meet and discuss the implications.

And lo and behold, when the pay agreement came in there was no evidence that any money had been allocated to cover it – and so once more schools took the hit.

Support staff have had their pay suppressed for too long and they deserve a good pay rise that reflects the hard work that they put in and the difference they make to teachers’ working lives, standards in the classroom and outcomes for young people.

They also deserve some catch up funding for the money their pay packets have lost after eight years of austerity.

In the longer term, the recent report on funding from the cross-party Education Select Committee fits well with our view on the need for a long-term funding plan similar to the NHS 20-year guarantee (Education Select Committee, 2019). This would perhaps offer more certainty for schools, teachers and support staff.

In the short term we have no choice but to take Messrs Hancock and Johnson at their word. Certainly the £14 billion pledge and welcome news for teachers gives some optimism.

However, at the same time, leaked documents suggest that some in government are again questioning the role of teaching assistants (Guardian, 2019) – despite the evidence that they can have a hugely positive impact on pupil outcomes – not to mention the fact that Mr Williamson’s recent announcements are all focused on teachers...

So, can we be confident that government generosity will filter through to the thousands of hard-working school support staff as well? Well, we have written to Mr Williamson seeking an equally generous commitment to support staff – but frankly I am not holding my breath...

  • Jon Richards is national secretary for UNISON.

Further information

  • Unions call for a 10% pay rise for local government workers, UNISON, July 2019:
  • Prime Minister boosts schools with £14 billion package, Prime Minister’s Office, August 2019:
  • £30,000 starting salaries proposed for teachers, DfE, September 2019:
  • A ten-year plan for school and college funding, Education Select Committee, July 2019:
  • Leaked documents reveal Tories’ dramatic plans for schools, Guardian, August 2019:


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