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'Don't let the support staff stars in our schools burn out'

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, which has over 250,000 members working in schools, writes:

Today, we celebrate the crucial contribution of school support staff as part of Stars in our Schools.

We know that teachers are the key to improving the education of our children and young people. However, it is also the hard work and dedication of support staff that creates the environment needed for learning. The academic attainment and the social and emotional development of our children and young people all rely on schools that are safe, supportive and aspirational. That means the entire school workforce – support staff, teachers and school leaders – must play their part.

Over the last four years, the coalition government has hurried through ideological policies and forced structural change, which has created an incoherent education system. Former education secretary Michael Gove’s focus on changing structures and tilting at windmills has hit school staff morale. In this protracted melee, much was lost – not least the voice of half of the school workforce: support staff.

One of the final acts of the last government was to introduce a Schools Support Staff Negotiating Body (SSSNB) to provide a platform for staff beyond teachers and headteachers. Unfortunately, the coalition government in its early days strangled the SSSNB in its infancy, axed national training funding and archived the enormously helpful training resources for teaching assistants.

We warmly welcome proposals by Labour's Tristram Hunt to re-establish a School Support Staff Negotiating Body in the next parliament. There are many issues to grapple with, including workload, terms and conditions and pay. To ensure a fair deal, support staff need a fair hearing: something that they haven’t had in recent years.

There is much to do. A Unison survey of more than 15,000 school support staff from the across the UK reveals a professional and committed, but demoralised, workforce that harbours grave concerns for their ability to adequately support students.

The survey has revealed that 80 per cent are concerned about workload, with 81 per cent admitting that the only way they can keep on top of their work is by doing unpaid overtime and working out of hours. Eighty per cent of respondents said they love their job, but fewer than half said they feel valued – 53 per cent said they feel significant levels of stress in the job. Almost 90 per cent said they are concerned about low rates of pay, with 17 per cent forced to supplement their income with in-work benefits.  

Support staff are being given more responsibilities and managerial titles, but their pay and conditions don’t reflect this. This is particularly true of school business managers. They make crucial financial decisions but sit in school leadership teams alongside colleagues who shoulder fewer burdens but are paid greater salaries. And while Unison has now reached agreements with a range of employers and national organisations, which means that around 50 per cent of schools should now use the living wage as the bottom pay point, too many other staff are being paid just above the minimum wage.   

Last year saw a debate on the role of teaching assistants; negative campaigning by the right-wing think tank Reform and some in the government sought to undermine those working in such positions. A counter-campaign – including a debate in Westminster led by Labour MP Alex Cunningham – culminated in a celebration day for teaching assistants, run by Unison. This event far exceeded our expectations, with schools across the UK celebrating the contributions of TAs. The success has encouraged the extension of that day to a celebration of the varied roles of all support staff.

We know that it is the impact that support staff have on the academic attainment and the development of character and resilience in children and young people that motivates them to undertake the work they do with such passion, dedication and professionalism. We are celebrating this – we hope you will, too. 

For more details on the campaign, which is supported by the TES, go to


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