'A pat on the back for school support staff won’t pay the bills or put food on the table'

Schools cannot function without their support staff – but too many of these vital employees are living on the bread-line. We need to reward their professional and hard work where it matters the most – in their pockets, writes one union leader

Jon Richards

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Many school support staff are living on the breadline, and that’s hardly surprising when you think that they are some of the lowest paid employees in the public sector.

Many rely on in-work benefits or support from family and friends – without which they’d struggle to make it through the month to the next payday.

The government’s harsh public sector pay policies have resulted in a real-terms pay cut of 18 per cent since 2010 for this already low-paid group of staff.

Yet these employees have been instrumental in delivering crucial improvements in school standards and exam results. Schools would simply not be able to function without them.

The government and school heads are quick to praise staff for their hard work, dedication and professionalism, but school support staff need more than a pat on the back.

Many employees and their families are at breaking point as they watch prices at the petrol pump and supermarket checkout soar, but their pay lag ever further behind the rising cost of living.

Even an experienced teaching assistant can get as little as £15,000 a year. That’s less than 60 per cent of the average national wage. It’s no surprise that many school support staff have had to take second jobs just to survive.

And it’s not just financial worries that are keeping school support staff awake at night.

School staff 'anxious and depressed'

In a recent Unison survey, over half of the school support staff said they were struggling to cope with their workload. Over 80 per cent talked of increases in class sizes, unfilled vacancies and cuts to budgets that once paid for books, special needs support and buildings maintenance. They might love their jobs, but pressures like this they most certainly don't.

More than half of the school support staff said their jobs and growing financial concerns were making them anxious and depressed. As a result, many were looking to leave in search of better-paid, less stressful jobs.

Everyone likes to know that they’re making a difference, that their head, a parent, even the secretary of state or the prime minister thinks they’re doing a good job. But it’s not enough.

A pat on the back won’t pay the bills and it won’t put food on the table. School support staff need to see their professionalism and hard work recognised where it matters most – in their pockets.

Praise and goodwill is not enough – school support staff need a pay rise. The government must dig deep and come up with the money. It must be new cash, too, so schools don’t have to cut existing budgets to give staff an above-inflation pay rise.

All eyes will understandably be on the chancellor in two week’s time.

Jon Richards is the Unison head of education

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