The 'real' thing

20th February 1998 at 00:00
In more than 30 years' working in and around education, I don't think I've ever come across a single school that holds real staff meetings.

All of them hold regular meetings of teachers, but it is almost as if other school staff don't exist. No one would deny that teachers need to meet to discuss issues specific to teaching, but many of the items on the average agenda are not in this category, and it is grossly (if unintentionally) insulting to administrative staff, caretakers, nursery nurses, classroom assistants, midday supervisors, technicians, meals staff and cleaners to exclude them.

It is in effect saying: "The school is nothing to do with you and you couldn't possibly have anything useful to say." In many cases, I am sure it is simply that meetings continue to be organised the way they always have been, but, at bottom, it is about discrimination and prejudice.

Not long ago I was discussing the position of a nursery nurse facing redundancy because of budget cuts. I asked the head if there was any money that could be diverted to pay her wages, to which she replied: "I'm afraid not. And if there was, I'd use it for a member of staff, not a nursery nurse." While prejudice is rarely expressed so blatantly, this is a fair summary of the views many heads hold about support staff.

Yet I have often noted how some of the most acute statements made in staff meetings come from support workers who are there on sufferance, or at best as an afterthought. Perception is rarely related to wages; indeed, it can often be those on the professional outskirts who are best able to see the wood from the trees.

It is now less common for teachers to live in the community served by their school, whereas support staff usually do. This gives them an insight into the relationship between the school and its catchment area. They may well have important comments to make on matters such as drugs, bullying, domestic violence, vandalism, race relations and the esteem (or lack of it) in which the school is held.

This sort of understanding is crucial to any accurate view of what is going on, inside or outside the school gates - and most teachers would acknowledge this. Parents are often loath to open up to teachers about community issues, but support staff are the community, which makes their marginalisation even less comprehensible.

Most schools now accept the increasing role of parents in school affairs. It is now time for the prejudice excluding half the staff and more to be addressed.

Mike Scott is the UNISON education organiser for Nottinghamshire and a former teacher

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