A school's support staff is human too, says Jim Graham
A staff of 23 - and only two of them can remember ever having had a discussion with their boss about their work? Surely, this can't be a school in the latter part of the 20th century, or, if it is, it must be the sort of place best not spoken about?
In fact, it is a very good secondary comprehensive with the highest standards in almost everything - though not, it seems, in finding out about the feelings of the 23 support staff - a talented and committed group of secretaries, maintenance staff, matron, laboratory and workshop technicians and special-needs workers. It does not include the dining-room assistants because they are employed by an outside contractor, but they too affect the lives of pupils and other staff, so perhaps they should have been part of this survey. Whether or not their job has ever been discussed with them is one of a battery of questions in Keele University's Centre for Successful Schools survey of support staff. A teaching staff survey was produced some years ago and is now being revised, but this is the first time that attention is being paid to our least recognised but growing group of colleagues. It is still at the pilot stage, but it is already clear that it can provide a useful means by which those who are not usually heard can made their feelings clear.
For instance, how do they like to be described? Not as "non-teaching staff". Those I spoke to had no use for being "non" anything - there was more than a hint that they were sometimes treated as non-persons - without a survey adding to their non-existence.
Do they receive recognition for their work? From senior management? From their line manager? From colleagues? Do they find children treat them with respect? Do they feel welcome at social functions organised by teaching staff, such as end-of-term celebrations or staff outings?
Apart from the question about career review and development, the school referred to above came out very well from the survey, but there were still traces of attitudes which either ignore or, at worst, look down on staff who do not teach.
Probably the teachers who create this feeling would be horrified if challenged about it. That is the value of such a survey. It brings out any such perceptions into the open and is the essential first step towards educating colleagues into better attitudes.
The information given in the responses can be helpful and important. What any school can be sure of is that their support staff will be pleased to be recognised and to be asked for their views. This, in itself, is important and more formal quality systems such as Investors in People require such an approach.
The Office for Standards in Education's inspection criteria, on the other hand, don't appear to acknowledge the significant contribution of support staff to a school's ethos and efficiency.
However, the use of such surveys is not all straightforward. There is a problem about confidentiality. If respondents are asked to say what job they do, some of them, at least, will be easily identifiable. The responses of the one matron, for instance, can be seen at once in any tabulation of results. If, to avoid this, different roles are grouped together, then the survey loses much of its value. As is often the case, if confidentiality is discussed beforehand, it need not be a problem. On this occasion, it was agreed that the results would be seen by the head and the Keele researcher and no one else.
Something is needed in schools to trigger an awareness of the value of these colleagues. The title "support staff" is also an unfortunate alternative to "non-teaching staff". It suggests that they are the props that hold up the real thing. Perhaps we appreciate their work, but do we always remember that they have the same right to respect and value as anyone else in the building? Pupils pick up such clues about adult behaviour and power relations very quickly. Genuine school quality must, therefore, include this wider set of relationships and values.
Jim Graham is an associate research fellow at Keele University Centre for Successful Schools
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