Support staff seek work elsewhere as pay in schools is too low

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A significant minority of school support staff, including teaching assistants, say they are seeking alternative work because of persistent low pay and the rising cost of living.

Survey findings from UNISON show that 42 per cent of its members, which include teaching assistants, caretakers, cleaners and other school support staff in England and Wales, are actively looking for better paid work.

The findings, based on responses from 6,398 support staff, reveal that monthly take-home pay after tax can be as little as £800 to £999 (17 per cent), £1,000 to £1,199 (31 per cent), or £1,200 to £1,399 (21 per cent).

Respondents to the survey paint a bleak picture of living with no heating or hot water because of broken boilers they can’t afford to fix, worrying about how to pay for dental treatment, relying on their children for money, or going to food banks.

Seven in 10 (71 per cent) are worried about paying their utility and council tax bills and 47 per cent are anxious about paying their mortgage or rent.

As money is so tight, a quarter have resorted to taking second or even third jobs to make ends meet and 35 per cent have borrowed money from friends and family to get by.

Some say they have had to sell possessions online, others are working in nail bars, call centres, bars, restaurants and supermarkets, in addition to their job in school.

UNISON is currently balloting school support staff about possible strike action over a 1.75 per cent pay offer put forward by local government employers (2.75 per cent for the lowest paid staff). The consumer price index rate of inflation currently stands at 4.2 per cent.

Earlier this year UNISON submitted a joint pay claim – along with GMB and Unite – for at least 10 per cent for all council and school support employees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Responses to the survey came from staff working in primary schools (59 per cent) and secondary schools (27 per cent). Responses included:

  • “I cannot even pay my rent on my wages. I am renting a tiny two-bedroom place for £1,100 a month with my husband who has cancer and cannot work full time.”
  • “As a single person, I am just over the threshold for any financial help from the government and struggle to keep on top of bills. I panic whenever I have to visit the dentist or optician.”
  • “I can only cope financially as my youngest son, who is 25, is still living at home. He contributes 50 per cent towards all the bills and groceries.”
  • “I am struggling to keep my home, pay my bills and feed my children as I'm a single mother. I'm living on a credit card, which I can't afford to pay off.”
  • “Childcare is half of my wages. With everything else increasing, I can't even cover the bills.”

UNISON assistant general secretary Jon Richards said: “School support staff are a dedicated workforce who go the extra mile every day and work incredibly hard. Schools couldn’t operate without them. But many have reached a point where they simply can’t afford to stay in the job they love.

“Schools risk an exodus of support staff, as people reluctantly seek better-paid jobs. The rising cost of bills, food and travel means many of the stars in our schools risk falling into serious debt or losing their homes.

“The government must make extra money available to enable schools to keep the support staff they’re so dependent upon by paying them properly.”

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