Forget interactive whiteboards, the latest exam-board-endorsed textbooks and state-of-the-art online resource packages. In my 17 years in the profession, one resource has stood out above all others for its paramount significance in supporting student attainment; the teaching assistant. Whether maintaining the focus of a challenging student, providing whole-class support, dealing with the specific needs of a physically impaired child or simply providing a sounding board for a frustrated teacher, their help has been invaluable.
There is undoubtedly a vocational element to working with children, borne out of emotional investment. It is this investment that pushes our TAs to go that extra mile – it has to be, because they certainly aren’t doing it for the money.
According to Unison, the average TA salary is just £12,081 a year. And when you factor in that the majority of TA positions operate on term-time only contracts, in many cases the annual earnings fall comfortably short of the national living wage.
'Burden of responsibility'
In contrast to such meagre rewards, during my time in the profession, I have noticed the increasing burden of responsibility being placed on support staff. What initially began as a classroom-support role had evolved to incorporate an ever-widening remit of departmental resource preparation, intervention and teaching. One particular support staff member I worked with was even deployed as a school minibus driver, delivering students home on completion of after-school revision lessons.
And during the current recruitment crisis, I have witnessed at first-hand the growing pressure of expectation placed on support staff to provide both short-term cover, or, in certain cases, to take on long-term responsibility of curriculum delivery. My own observations are supported by figures from the latest school workforce census, which illustrate that over a five year period, the number of unqualified teachers rose from 14,800 in 2012 to 24,000 in 2016.
The trend of using teaching assistants and other unqualified staff to replace full-time teachers is something we should be concerned about. I feel that the goodwill of TAs is too often being exploited, with support staff taking on the additional responsibilities of teaching duties while being rewarded with the kind of salary you would receive for doing only the most menial tasks.
Reaching breaking point
This situation is undoubtedly being replicated at schools nationwide. A survey carried out in 2013 by the ATL teaching union (now part of the NEU teaching union), revealed the increasing teaching responsibilities being placed on support workers, with a third of TAs claiming they took classes for absent teachers. And they were doing so for no additional pay.
This burden of increased workload and expectation is by no means restricted to TAs. Since temporarily returning to the classroom, I have shared break-time duties with a varied array of technicians and support staff and have discovered that many of them have taken on additional responsibilities that are outside of their job descriptions and often above their pay grade. For example, the long-established IT technician now also has responsibilities for ‘behavioural support’, but without additional pay.
How long can we continue to exploit the goodwill of our support staff? Surely there has to be a breaking point. And with salaries akin to those you would get for serving burgers in a fast food chain, it won’t be long before we lose the invaluable resource of skilled support staff as they begin to look elsewhere – for roles where their efforts will be fully appreciated.
The writer is a former head of geography