The unsung heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic…

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
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The Unsung Heroes report has revealed the key role played by teaching assistants during the pandemic. However, Jon Richards says that if these support staff are to play their part in the recovery effort, then they need proper training, a healthy career path and a decent wage

As we stagger out of lockdown and begin our contemplation of the future, the sound of ministerial pronouncements and government plans have begun.

The trick for us all will be identifying what is worth keeping from the last year and what we can thankfully consign to the past.

With this in mind, UNISON commissioned the Institute of Education at University College London to look at the work that classroom-based school support staff have been doing over the last 12 months.

The resulting report – Unsung Heroes (Moss et al, 2021) – was based on a survey covering more than 9,000 teaching or classroom assistants (TA/CAs). These are the most common job titles used across UK schools, although others include learning support assistant as well as several different titles for staff working with children with special/additional needs.

The TA/CAs that responded mostly worked in primaries – although the results showed that the additional responsibilities and workload they were asked to shoulder was similar across all types of school and across the UK.

The results gave a strong guide to the support TA/CAs have been providing. Nearly nine out of 10 (88 per cent) directly supported vulnerable and key worker children in school during lockdown, with 51 per cent managing a whole class or bubble on their own as teachers prepared and delivered remote lessons.

Just under half (49 per cent) reported having covered staff absences. This presence in schools led some to observe that the “lowest-paid TAs are in school doing the dangerous face-to-face work”. Those in early years and special schools working in close contact with children particularly had been worried: “We have put our lives at risk more than any school staff during the pandemic.”

As we expected from anecdotal evidence, a lot of new duties and extra work were delivered without any additional training (40 per cent). Although the workforce’s adaptability shone through as 44 per cent said they had picked up new digital skills during the pandemic.

All of these outcomes intensified during the winter 2021 lockdown, with a new legal requirement to supply remote education to all children learning at home, and with far greater numbers of pupils in schools than before.

The report concludes: “Schools really are communities – they are at their best when they recognise, value and support the contribution of each individual.”

The report finishes with three recommendations:

  • Consider staff wellbeing as well as pupil wellbeing: Resilient schools require resilient staff. The effects from the pandemic will ripple on for some time so taking care of staff should be as much of a priority as taking care of pupils.
  • Invest in TA/CAs’ local knowledge: Locally based TA/CAs have a unique understanding and clear view of what matters most within their community and for their pupils. That comes from intimate knowledge of the people their school serves, and of which they are often part. Funding should be directed to make use of their skills in their local setting.
  • All staff, whatever their role, need to be part of build-back planning: TA/CAs voiced their concern about feeling peripheral to their schools. So now is the time to fully recognise their important role and build them into those conversations. Such recognition would help everyone build back better.

UNISON is particularly keen to press a final national point: the need for TA/CAs to be more fully and deliberately involved in the on-going national education conversation.

The registration of some support staff in Wales has opened up the chance for greater professionalisation of TA/Cas, something we would be keen to see across the UK.

After years of neglect, there are some signs of optimism. Pestering by UNISON and others such as UCL associate professor Rob Webster’s Maximising the Impact of TAs project, in tandem with the research by the Education Endowment Foundation (which shows big positive educational impact of TA/CAs), has seen the government begin to show some interest.

New senior Department for Education officials are more interested in engaging with the sector. In our discussions, TA/CAs have been mentioned as part of the recovery programme and the National Tutoring Programme.

While we welcome this chance, we do worry whether there is space for this to happen. Even before the pandemic tight finances saw staffing ratios increase and many higher level TA/CA posts cut. This increased the workload and responsibilities of poorly paid lower grade employees, who were already frequently asked to cover work that they are not trained for.

As our survey showed this became commonplace during the pandemic. Do we want to entrench that for the future?

Teaching and classroom assistants could have a vital role in helping pupils recover their lost learning post-pandemic. But to do this they need proper training, a healthy career path and a decent wage

  • Jon Richards is national secretary, education at UNISON.

Further information & resources

Moss et al: Unsung heroes: The role of teaching assistants and classroom assistants in keeping schools functioning during lockdown, UCL Institute of Education, April 2021:

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