Jon Richards: The man speaking up for support staff

Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, talks about fighting for the safety of support staff in the Covid crisis
29th January 2021, 12:13pm
Kate Parker


Jon Richards: The man speaking up for support staff
Jon Richards, Head Of Education At Unison, Is Fighting For School & College Support Staff In The Coronavirus Pandemic

"What kind of leader am I?" Jon Richards ponders. 

"I allow collaboration. I want involvement and engagement, but I take the final decision. At the start of the year, clearly we had to do loads of work around updating guidance - and we made the decision around Section 44. We were always in discussion with colleagues, with lawyers and others, and absolutely took on board everything they knew. 

"I have staff who have a range of views, and I'd like to think I collaborate, I engage and involve everyone. But I know, at the end of the day, the buck stops with me."

Richards is the head of education at Unison - and the decision of which he talks will go down in history. As those across the education sector will know, Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives employees the right to not go into work because their workplace is unsafe.

It's a right that Unison, alongside the NEU teaching union, advised all 350,000 of its members working in education to bear in mind as they were set to return after the Christmas holidays. Members sent in their letters by the thousands, and days later, schools and colleges were told to move teaching provision online. 

A decision - and a leadership - clearly, with an enormous impact. 

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Richards was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and comes from a long line of farm workers. When his older brother was born - he has two older brothers and a young sister - his parents were living and working on a farm. However, in the late 50s and early 60s, as big farms took over and small farms were forced to shut down, the family moved, and his dad went to work as a bin man for the council, and his mum, having left school with one O level, retrained as a primary teacher. 

It was, he says, a "fairly typical working-class childhood", and although he loved primary school, by the time he went on to secondary, he was very mischievous, and caused a lot of problems for his teachers. 

Getting involved in unions

Richards says that geography and geology were "his thing" at school - and he ended up "accidentally" studying geology at King's College. After leaving school, Richards wanted to get some real-world experience, and had planned to volunteer in India. The programme fell through due to lack and funds, and he set about volunteering locally. Meanwhile, his secondary school geology teacher invited him to a talk at King's, which led to an interview for the geology course. 

"After the interview, the professor took me to the students' union and dropped me off with the housing people, which seemed a bit odd. I thought he was lining me up for the next year. And he said, 'Well, here you are. Here's the housing. I'll see you on Monday.'  And that was it: and I was too embarrassed to say anything because it was such a big, impressive college," he laughs.

At university, he was not a good student - "I was too busy having too much of a good time" - and says that he didn't give too much thought to his future. Growing up, his parents were not political - his Dad never voted, and his mum was a floating voter - and it was the King's Labour Club that first sparked an interest. 

However, his foray into the union movement didn't come until years later. Upon leaving university, he "staggered around" various jobs, and says he clearly wasn't cut out for "the oil world, as it were". In 1985, he got a job doing administration for the National Centre for Social Research - and it was there that he got involved with his local union, ASTMS (now part of Unite). He quickly became a branch secretary, looking after members from the Bank of England, Tanqueray gin and the Mitsubishi bank. 

Helping those living with HIV

A restructuring of the NCSR led to Richards being made redundant, and his career took a different path. It was the late 80s, and the spread of HIV and AIDS was becoming a real issue. He set up an HIV unit with an old boss of his to offer support for those who were suffering, and to train home care workers to be able to look after them. 

"You can see the parallels between then and Covid in the sense that home care workers were very scared about going into people's homes. It was seen as a gay person's disease, and we didn't know what was happening. People were dying around us," he says.

Richards was in charge of the administration side of things, and collated the figures, recording as many cases as possible to get funding from the Department of Health. He says that, looking back, the work he did at the unit was one of the proudest moments of his career.

"When the government was chucking money at it, we made a decision to transfer some of it to buy people washing machines and fridges. People were having night sweats, and they needed to keep the medicines cold. There were a lot of people living chaotic lives, and they needed stability," he says. 

"We had some fabulous times - we went around to a few drag queens' houses and one of them put on a show for us, and I'll always remember that. It was an amazing time." 

Championing the unsung heroes of education 

When the funding dried up, Richards moved to work for the British Association of Occupational Therapists, which, a year or so after he joined, merged into Unison. And now 23 years later, he is at the very top of the chain, one of three national secretaries sitting below the general secretary. 

The members he represents as head of education are mostly support staff - teaching assistants in schools, technical staff in colleges and FE. And it's these people, his members, that Richards says the education sector would crumble without.

"There's a real undervaluing of technical education in this country, because this government, for a long time, has talked about technical education and the reality is they talk a good game, but they don't actually invest huge amounts in technical staff," he says. 

"And again, you've got catering, you've got cleaning, you've got those other support staff who are absolutely fundamental, and one of the problems that is coming home to roost now is where, through austerity and through trying to save money, you see the results of what happens when you contrast things out to the private sector." 

Richards says that the phrase "parity of esteem" means very little - and that the government urgently needs to invest in the system, particularly in careers services.

Call for investment in technical education

"Connections played a key role in putting people in touch with FE and they were very linked into FE colleges. The reality is you don't have that now because schools are in charge of career services and they're only interested in academic fields. They want to keep as many pupils in school as possible. There's a diversion of talent of people who could well have been better suited going into FE - and that's a direct result of lack of connections and career services," he says. 

He says that apprenticeships have a huge role to play - but that the government's apprenticeship scheme has "been done on the cheap". 

"There is a difference in the amount of money being spent on apprenticeships and being spent on FE. And fundamentally, unless people see that it's worthwhile going into an FE college, that they are going to have a properly funded career structure that's going to get you out there, then they won't go to one," he says. 

"There is no guarantee that when you do an apprenticeship, you'll come up with a job at the end. And that's not the same elsewhere - it's not the same in Europe where there's considerably more a greater likelihood of a job."

Across the sector, Richards says that he wants to see an end to big college mergers, and questions how a large college group can really cater to the needs of local communities. He also pushes for further devolution to meet local skills needs. 

What about support staff?

And while he has many concerns for both schools and colleges - professional development for support staff, the mental health of both students and staff - his main priority at the moment is supporting his members through Covid and asking the powers that be: "What about support staff?"

"There's talk about, 'Well, it doesn't spread much to pupils and they don't get it.' And then, secondly, they say, 'It's OK for teachers, because teachers don't get it so much and they are able to stand up front and keep two metres distance.' But teaching assistants and support staff have to sit next to students. Exam officers have to help individual learners," Richards says.

"Catering staff are mixing with loads of pupils, and you see higher rates of infection amongst those groups, because they have high-risk groups, like older workers, BAME [black, Asian and/or minority ethnic] workers, those who live in multi-generational environments. Whenever we meet with scientists, it's always about teachers. So I'm the pain in the butt who always asks, 'What about support staff?'"

It's a question that hundreds of thousands of people, right across the sector from schools to colleges, will be grateful to him for asking. 

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