‘Save our school support staff or pupils’ education will suffer’
Unison Cymru Wales lead organiser for schools Jess Turner warns that Westminster funding cuts are starting to hit education in Wales
AS A parent of school-age kids you are probably used to the controlled chaos every morning that is washing and dressing, getting the school uniform sorted and making packed lunches.
It might have been a mad rush, but the one thing you won’t have worried about is the quality of the education your son or daughter would be receiving at school.
That could be about to change because seven years of severe spending cuts directed by the UK Westminster government are beginning to bite hard and Welsh schools are making redundancies to their school support staff, who are organised by Unison.
It would be a mistake to think it is only teachers who contribute to your child’s education.
Support staff undertake vital but unheralded jobs which make schools the success they are.
They assist children with additional learning needs and those in need of extra support; help teachers to cope with big classes; release teachers for preparation time and help those with English as an additional language. And that’s just in the classroom. The cook, cleaner, technician, receptionist, caretaker and others all play their part to make the school function. Take away school support staff and teachers have a big problem and inevitably pupils will lose out.
Last week Unison made headlines revealing that more than 20 schools in Gwynedd are cutting the amount of assistance students receive in the classroom. Hundreds of support staff there have been told their working hours could be reduced or they could be made redundant because the council doesn’t have any more money. In some cases, secretarial staff face redundancy too.
Evidence coming in from school support staff in primary, secondary and special needs schools shows that this is an all-Wales problem and we should be very worried. We would question how classroom teaching remains viable when schools are losing support-staff hours in this magnitude.
If they are reducing the working hours or making redundancies for hundreds of employees in Gwynedd, we can imagine thousands are affected in Wales.
There is discrimination at work too; because in the main school support staff are low-paid women who are more likely to be on precarious contracts, there’s a feeling local authorities can simply get away with cutting their jobs. Teaching redundancies grab the headlines, support staff losing their livelihoods doesn’t.
Unison’s belief is if a factory was to make 100-plus people redundant, politicians would be falling over themselves in protest advocating urgent intervention by the Welsh Government. Low-paid women playing a key role in the schooling of our children shouldn’t be treated differently and that’s why Unison has written to Kirsty Williams AM, Cabinet Secretary for Education, calling on her to intervene. We know Welsh Government monitors teacher redundancies so it would be an obvious next step for it to do the same with support staff.
If support-staff jobs are threatened, schools and local authorities must make good any shortfall in budgeting from their reserves or look at other ways to save the staff. The urgent intervention of the Welsh Government is required. We are not blind to the fact Conservatives’ austerity agenda has robbed Welsh local authorities of the money needed to invest in schools and other local public services but Welsh Government can’t ignore the problem.
Put yourself in the shoes of school support workers: they suffer low pay, a lack of career opportunities and institutional discrimination that belittles their role. Part-time, casual and term-time working dominate. Every year hundreds go through the uncertainty of whether the school and local authority will fund their job for another year or whether their hours will be reduced.
How on earth would you be able to plan the family budget and your family’s future? That’s simply not a fair way to treat people. In these circumstances, inevitably, workplace morale suffers with some of our members telling us they love the job, but they’d have better job security working for a supermarket, sometimes for better money.
Classroom-based support staff are dedicated professionals, required to be registered every year with the Education Workforce Council, the same as teachers. Unlike teachers, the salaries of Wales’ tens of thousands of TAs vary depending on where they work; pay is set by each of the 22 local authorities and their experience and responsibility are not always recognised in the pay structure.
Some TAs work without a proper written and agreed job description; you can have the same job title doing very different duties, receiving vastly different pay across Wales. Many TAs lack proper professional development, and shamefully some are forced to pay for their own training.
Not investing in the whole school workforce harms the quality of our children’s education and means a very raw deal for these committed public service workers and their families.
Support workers regularly go way beyond their duties to help pupils and teachers every day; Unison wants Welsh Government to ensure they get the recognition and job security they deserve.
> ‘Support staff such as dinner ladies undertake vital but unheralded jobs which make schools the success they are’