Pupils’ blazers being set on fire and a staff member being taken to hospital following a chemical accident are among the incidents in school science lessons resulting from the absence of trained technicians, according to public sector union Unison.
It says the number of technicians in secondary schools has been cut by 16.8 per cent since 2013 and that in a third of schools the role is being covered by teaching assistants. In others, sixth-formers and school caretakers are also filling in – even the headteacher’s PA in one school.
Published today, the union’s survey of 500 technicians who support science, IT and design and technology lessons reveals that a third believe staff cuts are putting pupil safety at risk.
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Two in five reported a fall in the number of practical experiments taking place – with demonstrations, group work and even YouTube tutorials replacing one-to-one practical lessons. And some said they were dipping into their own pockets to pay for supplies.
Meanwhile, 17 per cent were aware of pupils or staff being injured in lessons when non-technicians handled chemicals or specialist equipment, and 47 per cent said the number of injuries was increasing.
Unison head of education Jon Richards said: “Technicians and other support staff play an important role in school life that’s often not fully appreciated.
“Without highly skilled technicians, well-meaning but unskilled colleagues are being asked to step in, sometimes risking their own safety and that of pupils and colleagues.”
The survey reveals that the gap left by skilled technicians is being filled by a combination of teachers (37 per cent), teaching assistants (33 per cent) and others, including school caretakers, sixth-form students and even a headteacher’s PA.
Injuries have ranged from the hospitalisation of a staff member who incorrectly used the corrosive chemical hydrogen peroxide to pupils’ blazers being set alight when a supply teacher sat them too close to an experiment, the survey reveals.
Around three-quarters of respondents said school budget cuts were having an impact on the availability and quality of equipment and resources.
Yet the survey found that 83 per cent of technicians were happy in their jobs. One said: “I love being able to create informative and fun lessons for children”, while another said: “It is great when a practical works well and you can see the children enjoying it and ‘getting’ the science.”
The figures are published today to coincide with Unison’s annual Stars in our Schools celebration, which highlights the contribution that school support staff make to children’s education.