Hilary Wilce is impressed by a secondary school where training and rewards for support staff are key tools in overcoming adversity
At George Green's Mixed School, support staff are the glue that holds everything together. The school might look out towards the glittering skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in east London, but its roots are in the older community of the Isle of Dogs.
Many of its pupils are poor, displaced, emotionally vulnerable and in need of stability. But most of its teachers are young, newly qualified and quick to move on when they discover they can't buy a flat or house nearby.
Bridging that gap are the support staff, who are mostly older and live locally. They know the children and their families. And they tend to stay, providing the familiarity and consistency that so many of the pupils badly need.
This is because the school makes clear it values them and offers them opportunities to develop. If they have potential, says head Kenny Frederick, the school will spot it. This claim, she says, springs from a strongly inclusive agenda.
Just as all pupils are treated the same, so the 90 teachers and 60-plus support staff form a single team that always works together. "All our training and development opportunities are designed to involve staff from all areas of the school," Ms Frederick says. "It's impossible to see who's a teacher and who's a member of the support team."
The pupils also know this is the case. Should any of them, for example, swear at a support staff member, retribution is as swift and uncompromising as if they had said it to a teacher.
There are more than 30 teaching assistants, mostly funded by the 100-plus pupils with statements of special needs, but organised to work with groups of children. "All that flitting in and out to support one child doesn't work," says assistant head Sue Tripp.
Teaching assistants have a two-week induction programme, then join a career and salary structure the school has put in place. Management responsibilities and specialist skills are acknowledged and rewarded. All get a professional development interview once a year. And all are assigned to a specialist staff team that might, for example, focus on literacy, the curriculum or behaviour management.
Training opportunities are also plentiful. Management, anti-bullying, literacy, special needs and ICT are a few of the areas where TAs have been able to extend their skills. Meanwhile, assistants with the right educational background might go to teacher training and others sit GCSEs alongside pupils. However, no matter how well trained and experienced the school's TAs are, they are certainly not "cheap teachers", Tripp says. "The jobs they do are quite specific and different."
Meals supervisors also have a greatly expanded role, after they brainstormed with Ms Frederick about what they did in their job and what they could and would like to do. The 10-strong team has been trained in conflict resolution and how to intervene in cases of bullying and racism. Highly visible, in distinctive red tabards, they work in shifts supervising the breakfast club, breaks, lunchtimes and at the end of the day. They deal with latecomers, absence phone calls, and students who are out of lessons and in the corridor, many of whom are often distressed and in need of help, according to the head.
They also help supply staff, showing them where to go and reassuring them that they are available if behaviour problems arise. They are also highly active on parent-teacher days, helping people keep their appointments and telephoning no-show-ers. As a result, a remarkable 90 per cent of parents turn up.
Funds for the meals supervisors have been assembled from a rag-bag of sources. Frederick says the investment has paid back "1,000-fold, not least because they, like many of the teaching assistants, are parents of children in the school and fervent ambassadors for the school community".
Development opportunities are also available for ICT staff, lab assistants and those who are nurtured "in-house" to fill all kinds of posts.
Several support staff, including the teaching assistant team leader, Terri Eales, are taking part in a school-based MBA programme. She does not know what to expect when she begins the course in January, but is happy to take part. "They said I should do it," she grins, "so I am."