Support staff leave for supermarket jobs as cost-of-living crisis bites

Schools are struggling to recruit and retain staff as they cannot compete with other sectors, Tes investigation finds
3rd May 2022, 3:00pm


Support staff leave for supermarket jobs as cost-of-living crisis bites
Scrapped early-career payment scheme boosted teacher retention

Schools are facing problems recruiting and retaining their support staff with low wages, combined with the cost of living crisis, resulting in many considering jobs outside of education.

A Tes investigation has found that school leaders are struggling to fill vacancies, as staff find that they can earn more in retail roles where they are paid similar hourly rates, but can work longer shifts and have year-round contracts.

Meanwhile, support staff have told Tes that they are considering their positions as their current wages are insufficient to make ends meet, given recent bill and tax rises.

One cover supervisor said she was mulling over switching to work at a supermarket because of higher wages and less stress, while a headteacher at a special school told us a teaching assistant had confided that she was unable to afford to change her child’s nappies.

Local government pay scales for support staff outside London start at £18,333 per year, although staff on term-time-only contracts may be paid less than this.

The Department for Education says schools have the freedom to set their own pay terms for support staff if they wish, but headteachers have told Tes that they “have their hands tied” by constrained budgets.

The Living Wage Foundation charity suggests that the UK living wage - a figure calculated by the Resolution Foundation think-tank - is £9.90 an hour. The organisation does not publish the wage as an annual salary but, if someone worked 37.5 hours per week for a whole year on £9.90 an hour, they would earn £19,305 per year.  

School leaders ‘don’t have people applying’ for roles

Paul Gosling, headteacher at Exeter Road Primary School in Devon and incoming president of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said that, in recent months, his school had received no applications for some jobs when, in the past, they would have had 10 or more.

He also said that, on some occasions, he had offered candidates jobs only for them to reject it because of the low pay.

He said: “Candidates will sit down and calculate their pay and see, ‘here, I can get 38 weeks whereas, in Tesco, I can get 52 weeks with holiday entitlement’. We’re in a competitive market and we can’t compete.”

Mr Gosling added that the cost of living crisis - with energy bills and food prices going up - was having a “massive impact”, and said that he currently knew of a local secondary school that had seven vacant teaching assistant posts at the moment.

He added: “I don’t know where this ends. The danger is that we have children that need one-to-one support - they have a statutory entitlement to have a teaching assistant in the classroom, for example - and if we can’t get people to interview, we can’t meet our responsibility.”

Dan Morrow, chief executive and trust leader at Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust, told Tes that staff in administrative roles across schools in the trust had told him they were planning on leaving to work in supermarkets, as they could earn more because of the greater range of shifts on offer.

He also said there were several vacant support staff positions across the trust that “literally don’t have people applying”.

Mr Morrow added that the trust was planning a pay rise in the summer but that he was somewhat reluctant to do this because it would put pressure on other schools to do the same when they might not be able to afford it.

He said: “What this actually needs is a systemic response in terms of the funding given - not schools competing against each other.”

Emily Haddock, headteacher at Kisharon School - a special free school in London - said that one of her teaching assistants had shared with her that she could only afford to change her child’s nappy three times a day.

She said the recent national insurance rise was “crippling” her staff and, even though she had tried to offset the damage by increasing pay - supplying free school lunches to her staff and providing essentials, such as sanitary products - this was merely a “sticking plaster” on a broken system.

Funding needed to increase to allow staff to afford to live, she added.

Support staff have also told Tes that current cost pressures mean they’re considering leaving their positions for better-paid jobs.

One cover supervisor in West Yorkshire, who wished to remain anonymous, said she was considering taking up a job in a supermarket because of recent bill rises.

She said: “The staff often joke together, saying, ‘I’ll see you on the till at Aldi’, but I probably would look at that at the moment.

“It’s got ridiculous since the cost of living crisis hit. I’m living pay cheque to pay cheque, we’ve no savings at all. I’m a wage away from the streets. If I get a surprise bill, I’ve had it.”

Similarly, an IT team manager at a large academy, who also wanted to remain anonymous said he didn’t know how schools would manage and that the cost of living crisis had “fuelled” problems with recruitment for his teams.

He said: “Money is incredibly important with it being squeezed and families are making cutbacks.

“We need to think about term-time only contracts: are these viable to people on tight budgets and needing full-time contracts?”

Schools have their ‘hands tied’

Louise Hatswell, a conditions of employment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was “hardly surprising” that school support staff were actively considering their positions as their pay levels had been “directly impacted by years of real-terms pay cuts”, while the cost of living had “rapidly increased”.

“Schools are very aware that pay is an important factor in both attracting and retaining staff but largely have their hands tied because they simply do not have the money in their hugely constrained budgets for the salaries they would ideally like to offer,” she said.

Ms Hatswell said that schools could not “function properly” without an array of support staff and that a recruitment crisis was the “very last thing” education needed, but “that is exactly what we might have”.

Mike Short, head of education at Unison - which represents more than 250,000 members in support staff roles across the UK - said it was “shameful” that people supporting the education of children were “struggling to put food on the table and pay the bills.”

Laurence Turner, head of policy and research at GMB union, said many schools were “struggling to recruit the support staff needed to deliver an effective and inclusive education for pupils”.

Cost of living soaring

Cost pressures are hitting households across the UK at the moment.

Inflation - which reflects the rate at which prices of everyday items are rising - sits at 7 per cent, while earlier this month the energy price cap - the maximum rate at which energy companies can charge households on standard gas and electricity deals - rose by 54 per cent.

On 6 April, national insurance rates - a contribution taken from employees’ pay packets - increased by 1.25 percentage points.

From 6 July, the salary threshold at which workers start to pay national insurance will rise to £12,570, which means anyone earning less than around £35,000 will pay less national insurance from then, although many will face a squeeze until that time.

Tes has previously reported that some teachers have been “using food banks” as the cost of living crisis hits.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are grateful for the work of all support staff in education and value their importance in helping pupils learn. We also understand that the rising cost of living is of concern to people across the country.

“It is for schools to set the pay of their support staff according to their own circumstances. Cost increases should be seen in the wider context of funding for schools. In 2022-23, core schools funding will increase by £4 billion compared to 2021-22 - a  seven per cent cash terms per pupil boost - and this will help schools to meet wider cost pressures.”

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