'Term-time contracts for support staff? They're unfair'

Why are school support staff only given term-time contracts when teachers are paid all year round, asks Jon Richards

How come school support staff are on term-time-only contracts when teachers are paid all year round?

Term-time contracts for half of the school workforce are divisive, bad for morale and unfair. 

Why is it that teaching staff can have full-year, 52-week contracts, but most support staff working alongside them are now – mostly unwillingly – paid on term-time-only contracts?

I have been on the receiving end of some criticism, following my comments in a Tes story, which noted that the Department for Education was holding up a school that moved admin staff to term-time contracts as showing “good practice”.

The original story raised my hackles. This was not just because it was low-paid staff taking the brunt of cuts again, but because support staff were not being treated equitably.

Term-time contracts have meant that some support staff have seen their pay cut by more than 20 per cent.

School support staff treated unfairly

One of my critics suggested that the difference is that teachers are qualified and have extra work to do, such as planning, marking and meeting targets

I agree that a relevant qualification should be rewarded, but teachers already get a significantly higher hourly rate than most support staff. 

And, I would ask, do all teachers do the same level of marking and planning across all subjects, and in primary and secondary? Nonetheless, they generally get paid the same full-year hours. 

A better criticism of my response was that some support staff are on 52-week contracts – why should they be paid more than support staff who “get the holidays off”? 

Once more, this only compares support staff to their colleagues. Why not compare staff across the whole school workforce?

Levelling things up

Now, I’m not arguing that teachers should be moved on to term-time-only contracts. No. I’m with Boris Johnson on this one: we should level up. 

Historically, support staff in maintained schools were employed on yearly contracts. Then large numbers were moved on to term-time contracts, when local authorities changed their pay and grading systems. 

At the time, councils argued that, under equal-pay legislation, they had to compare school staff to other council workers. Now, as more and more staff work for academies, this is no longer the case: the comparators disappear. 

And surely, anyway, equal-pay law wasn’t meant to slash the pay of an already low-paid, predominantly female workforce? Especially when better-off, predominantly female teaching colleagues have similar work patterns, but don’t take the same hit?

Some good employers recognised the unfairness and put into place ameliorating measures, such as reviewing grading and enhanced protections.

However, as austerity continues and schools are encouraged by the Department for Education and school resource managing advisers to save money, it gets tougher to negotiate compensation.

To add to the problems, there are many variations in contracts and inconsistencies in the formulas used for calculating term-time payments, particularly around annual leave, maternity and sick pay

So term-time-only staff lose out here as well – a situation partially addressed by recent guidance from the national joint council (which sets most support staff pay rates), although not all employers have applied it yet. 

Vital support staff

It’s a sad fact that some support staff need to claim benefits to top up their low wages. 

But the law around holidays and their relationship to benefits makes things more confusing: term-time workers are able to claim in-work benefits. But, as they are seen to be in continuous employment, they are unable to claim out-of-work benefits, despite not being paid for some periods of school closure. The complexities of Universal Credit complicate matters further.

Support staff (directly or indirectly) play a vital role in improving educational outcomes for children and young people. 

Support staff are now routinely working record levels of unpaid hours. As jobs are cut in schools, many are picking up additional work.

One of Unison’s recent surveys showed that around three-quarters of staff were doing work previously done by staff at a higher grade, and most had not been trained to do it.

Another survey, of around 15,000 members, showed a dedicated workforce demoralised about pay, with 90 per cent of respondents reporting concerns. Term-time contracts featured regularly in the comments section.

Support staff love their jobs, but they feel undervalued. The unfairness of term-time contracts are part of this. 

Support staff should be treated the same as teachers. 

Jon Richards is head of education and local government for Unison, the public services union

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