Cost of living: A support staff exodus

Written by: Joanna Parry | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As the cost of living crisis bites, half of support staff are actively looking for other jobs. Many don’t want to quit, but feel they have no choice, says Joanna Parry

Recent research from UNISON lays bare the devastating impact that the cost of living crisis is having on school support staff, pupils and the wider education system.

A UK-wide survey of more than 6,000 teaching assistants, administrative staff, catering workers, cleaners, librarians and technicians found that despite being squeezed financially themselves, staff are using their own money to help pupils and their families.

They are buying food for hungry pupils and contributing towards the cost of uniforms, shoes and stationery. We have also seen reports of some headteachers setting up food banks due to the rising rates of pupil poverty. The figures are shocking.

At the same time, almost all the staff surveyed (98%) said they are concerned that their pay isn’t enough to cover the spiralling cost of living, with dire consequences for both the individuals and the schools many are feeling forced to leave:

  • “I can't afford to put my heating on right now and am cutting down on food by skipping meals for myself so I can feed my 10-month-old.”
  • “My rent has increased by £300, and my pay is really stretched. My husband and I want to have children, but it’s likely I’ll have to leave work to care for them because childcare costs more than my monthly income.”
  • “I’m renting a single room because I can't afford proper accommodation. With the rising cost of living, I might even struggle to pay for where I live currently.”
  • “I’ve been trying to get a mortgage, but I don't earn enough. If I don't get a different, better-paid job by September, I’ll have to sell my home. I'm now looking to leave the job after 16 years.”
  • “I’ve given up my lunch for a pupil who hadn’t eaten any breakfast. Staff at school now buy extra loaves of bread in their shopping to feed hungry children.”
  • “I earn very little, but I always have food available in my library at my own personal cost. I buy books for the library because there’s no school budget to replenish stock. I also help to make second-hand clothes available for families.”

Despite these financial pressures, it is a measure of the dedication and commitment of staff that they continue to put others first, especially when 13% reported having to use food banks in the last year.

More than a third (35%) are helping with the provision of food/packed lunches, more than a fifth (23%) are using their own money to buy books, pencils and pens for pupils, and a third (30%) are helping pupils with the cost of uniforms.

Many are also finding the financial pressures unbearable. They are reluctantly considering turning their backs on the jobs they love for better paid, potentially less rewarding work elsewhere.

More than a quarter (27%) had already taken second or third jobs to make ends meet and 49% are actively looking for other jobs. The exodus of support staff of course heaps even more pressure on the colleagues they leave behind, who find themselves stretched even more thinly.

With schools struggling to hold on to their support staff with better wages available elsewhere, the recruitment crisis is only getting worse. The price the sector, the economy and wider society risk paying for not properly recognising and rewarding support staff is likely to be high.

Support staff are crucial to the smooth running of schools and to the learning experiences of pupils in the classroom. But there are fewer of them now, and they are exhausted, demoralised and squeezed in every direction by costs rising faster than their pay. Their pay needs to better reflect the invaluable support they provide.

For the government’s post-Covid catch-up plan to work, ministers must look urgently at how they can better reward school support staff and halt the growing recruitment and retention crisis in schools.

This means investing properly in the workforce and creating opportunities for professional development that build on the huge range of skills staff already possess.

It is crucial that schools – and those who work in them – have the investment they need, since they are at the heart of our country’s recovery.

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