Supporting school support staff | Education Support
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Supporting school support staff

10th December 2015

Around half of the school workforce is made up of support staff, but their voices struggle to be heard. There are thousands of schools where support staff are treated well, integrated into the school’s mission and are valued for their unique contribution. However in far too many schools, support staff are an afterthought.

UNISON the main union for support staff carried out our biggest ever survey of school support staff to find out the challenges that they face. The survey results revealed a dedicated but demoralised workforce. They love their job, but feel undervalued and concerned about pay, workload and stress

We received over 15,400 responses, from across the school support staff team. The majority worked as teaching assistants/classroom assistants (60%) but all other support staff roles were well represented.  Around 60% worked in community schools, with 24% in academies, 8% working in trust/foundation schools and 3% in free schools. Unsurprisingly nearly 90% were women.


 "I love my job. To help children achieve something they once thought impossible. The pay might be rubbish but the job satisfaction is one in a million”. 

Over 80% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they loved their job, yet only 48% felt valued. Nearly 90% said they were concerned about pay: 58% were on term-time only contracts, 16.% said they were dependent on a second job to make ends meet, 17% supplemented their wages with benefits 1and 4% told us they were the sole provider for their family.

Half the respondents to the question said they had debts: indeed 7% owed more than £20,000.  Over a fifth had recently borrowed money from friends and family and 17% had taken out a bank loan. Worryingly 4% of them had resorted to a payday loan.

Frustration was expressed that they were expected to take on additional responsibilities without any financial recognition for their hard work and professionalism.

“Over half my salary now goes on just rent and as a single mum it doesn’t leave much to live on. Having spent last summer facing redundancy, job security leaves a lot to be desired”. 



Four fifths were concerned about workload and three quarters said they regularly worked unpaid overtime, the vast majority of whom were forced to do so as a result of increasing workloads.

“If everyone worked just their hours, nothing would be completed and pupils would suffer. Too much goodwill is given for very little pay. Schools are demanding environments with increasing pressure to work beyond just support”.

 “The work I do and the level of responsibility I have in respect of ensuring the administrative running of the school is hugely underpaid. There is a relentless workload and it is assumed that I will do that work in the limited hours I have or additional hours that aren’t paid”.

“My workload has trebled since the cuts. Before the cuts I was covering one school full time for five days. Now, in five days I am covering three schools during term time and line managing two library assistants, so I’m being paid less money for a lot more work. The same service is expected but this is an impossible task”.

Work related stress

Over half felt significant levels of workplace stress: 29% said they felt stressed ‘half the time they were at work’ and 23% said they felt stressed most, or ‘all the time’.  The main reason was pressure of work and lack of time. We received more than 11,000 comments about stress.

“I feel stressed by the sheer workload, expectations and working unpaid overtime”

“Extra responsibilities are always being added, with more complex duties being passed down from managers than before. The ever increasing workload is very stressful”.

Other significant stressors include being asked to carry out duties without appropriate training, pupil behaviour, lack of support and job insecurity.

Training and development

Lack of access to training and development is a significant concern with two thirds of respondents saying they were worried about the lack of CPD:

Half of the respondents said they had only had 1-3 days of training in the past year and nearly a quarter having no training at all.  Yet the desire to receive professional development, to broaden their aspirations and that of the pupils in their care was striking.

If I am being asked to supervise children with special educational needs during breaks/lunch, surely I should be appropriately trained”. 

Evident value

Despite all their concerns they made it clear why they persist.

 “Sometimes we are the only stable influence in children’s lives. We make a difference to them, by supporting them both academically and emotionally. We give them unconditional care. We listen to them, give encouragement, and build up their self-esteem. We are good role models and mentors. We teach children to respect themselves, each other, their school and community. We encourage them to think for themselves, to make good choices and to take risks”.

 “We teach children how to use a knife and fork. Encourage them to eat their lunch. Clean them up when they get grubby. Clean tables, benches and the floor so they are not sat or stood in someone else's mess. Sort out their problems and squabbles. Watch over them to keep them safe. We deal with children who become ill at lunchtimes, carry out First Aid and record it with stickers so parents and teachers can see they have received first aid. Play with the children when there is time to do so. We also watch out for safeguarding issues”.

“I run a well-used and well- resourced (despite budget cuts) library, providing students and staff with appropriate resources that enhance the learning and engage the interest of the pupils, as well as running clubs at lunchtimes, and activities during lessons”

“I think of myself as a scaffold in children's learning. I am here to support them, challenge and direct them. I feel a teacher cannot reach every child individually every day- it’s physically impossible. This is when I come into action. I am the teacher's right hand and reach out to children. Then I share my observations with the teacher and therefore promote a rich, caring and stimulating environment for children”.

“Without the support staff, our special needs children could not come to school as they need personal care and one-to- one support in the classroom. We give them the opportunity to access an education they are entitled to”.

So a remarkable workforce, unappreciated and undertrained, but staff love their job and are determined to do their best for children and young people.

With the government seemingly little interested in school support staff UNISON does what it can to fill the gap. In a time of pay restraint we have negotiated ‘Living Wage’ agreements for over half the schools in the UK.  For staff in financial trouble UNISON runs its own welfare service offering financial support, debt helpline and provides grants for items such as school uniform. We are hugely concerned that proposals to cut working tax credits will have a major impact on this group of workers.

In addition to our normal support for members in the workplace, we have tried to improve professional support, setting up the Stars in our Schools day to celebrate the work of school support staff.  We have re-launched our skills for schools website, a unique career development and training service. We are also working with the Teacher Development trust linking up to their good CPD guide.

We have also worked on professional standards and professional development for teaching assistants, school meals workers, technicians and school business managers. In Wales we are central to discussions on the new registration body that will cover education support staff. We are also working with the National Governors Association to produce materials for members who want to sit on governing boards

In these challenging times we are really pleased that Education Support Partnership is looking to further expand its services to support staff.  We are very keen to work jointly as there is much to be done and many more people who could benefit from the expert knowledge and advice that Education Support Partnership provides.

Jon Richards is the National Secretary for Education and Children's Services at Unison.