Supporting support staff

Written by: Julian Stanley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It is not just teachers who are feeling under pressure at the moment. Julian Stanley reports on the problems facing support staff in an era of ever-shrinking school budgets

Recently, I was invited to take part in a local BBC radio discussion as part of a news report highlighting how significant numbers of local teaching assistants and school support staff are considering leaving their jobs.

This, the programme’s research found, was the result of restructuring and the increased demands being placed on these professionals. It was an area like many others in the South of England, certainly not unusual in any particular way.

It reflected the frustrations that many are feeling. Tracy, a primary teaching assistant, told the presenter of how, when she first went to work at a local school she had received a good introduction from the school team and leaders and had really enjoyed it.

“Now,” she said, a few years later, “it’s more pressurised. I don’t feel like there’s enough support for the staff there. I feel like we’re treated more like a number than a person. Morale at my school is very low.”

It is becoming a worryingly familiar picture across the UK. We hear on a regular basis from many teaching assistants and other support staff who – like thousands of others working in education – are using our confidential helpline, desperate to share their concerns.

Some callers fear losing their jobs, others have already lost them. Many feel that expectations are too great with little or no training. Some are even having to take on lessons because the teacher workforce in the school is too stretched or because there are fewer teachers.

And due to all this, support staff, like many working in education, are increasingly seeing a negative impact on their mental and physical health and wellbeing as a result. Yet, like so many teachers, significant numbers don’t want to leave and many tell us they love the job but feel they are being set up to fail.

School leaders have an incredibly difficult job and are under immense pressure with dwindling budgets, but they must not lose sight of the value that support staff add to a school. Support staff can often be first in line when school budgets are cut, yet they perform an essential role in schools for very little monetary reward.

Many juggle the roles with other jobs to make ends meet but we speak to many who are proud of the difference they are making to children’s lives and show amazing commitment and loyalty to their schools and communities.

School leaders have very difficult decisions to make but without support staff, our classrooms begin to look very different. Teaching assistants and others provide essential support to growing numbers of children with SEN to access the curriculum, they nurture pupil wellbeing and safety in primary schools, and are crucial to classroom organisation and efficiency. All of this becomes less achievable or even impossible as teachers are left to manage as well as they can with less resource and bigger classes, adding to their already pressured roles.

Responding to our latest YouGov health survey of 1,250 school and college staff, almost half of those in support roles (in fact a similar proportion to teachers – 47 and 49 per cent respectively), said they had experienced psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety and panic attacks relating to work. They were even less likely to talk to anyone at work about their issues for fear that the school would not be supportive or that they could lose their job.

At a time when teacher retention and recruitment is getting harder and harder school leaders simply cannot afford to lose good support staff. As Tracy speaking on the local radio broadcast reminds us, it is so important to demonstrate that support staff are people doing a very hard job.

Let’s ensure we invest time and effort to publicly recognise and acknowledge just how valued they are in our schools, and to encourage their feedback and opinions. We need to look at schools who do this well and learn from them. Support staff are essential to success. As former headteacher, Colin Harris says, this often hidden army are “without doubt, the heartbeat of every successful school”.

  • Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Education Support Partnership. For help or advice contact the Education Support Partnership’s free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 and for details of other support services, including the Headspace and Yourspace leadership support programmes, visit www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk


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