Why our support staff need superstar status

17th April 2015 at 01:00
The people who keep a school running are the last to receive praise, yet everything - and everyone - would collapse without them

One of the most unfortunate things about being a busy teacher is that, on occasion, it is possible to become completely absorbed in your own business. We all have those stretches when we are utterly immersed in teaching, marking, planning and report-writing. This means that we sometimes forget about the people whose dedication and quiet efficiency enable us to remain so focused - our support staff.

A modern school simply does not function without them. The number of support staff in schools has increased from 134,000 in 1997 to more than 400,000 at present. Teaching assistants make up the largest proportion, but there are also office staff, exam officers, ICT technicians, caretakers, caterers, science technicians, business managers; all are absolutely vital to the running of a good school.

As a society, we don't value such jobs as we should do. The government's answer to all financial problems is to "cut down on bureaucracy" or "make cuts to administration" - and voters seem to lap up this message every time. I think part of the problem is that, almost by definition, the more successful an administrator or member of support staff is, the less visible they are. As busy teachers, it's easy to forget just how much easier our jobs are made by their efforts, although we soon notice if those jobs aren't done. This relative invisibility is reflected in their wage packets, too - the average hourly wage for support staff is pound;9.71, although this is higher for staff in secondary schools and for certain groups. Overall, though, less than half are satisfied with their pay, and understandably so.

The very term "support staff" implies that they are an add-on, a luxury extra. But, in fact, support staff are the foundations that a good school is built upon - they are unseen, yet the whole place would come crashing down without them. Take exam officers, for example: teachers and students alike can go an entire exam season without giving a moment's thought to what a colossal job it is to ensure that everyone is entered for the right units, has the right timetable and has the correct paper at the right time. If this were to go wrong, the impact would be catastrophic. ICT staff are similarly crucial: most days pass without us even thinking about whether the systems are likely to work, but the odd days when they don't tend to stick in our memories vividly.

Pillars of strength

Support staff are like foundations in the sense that they are very good at holding us up and stopping us from falling down. Primary school teaching assistants are a good example. A really good TA has a special skill set, one that is often distinct from that of the class teacher, and the very best are able to tailor what they do to complement that teacher. My wife frequently describes her vastly experienced TA as her "work mum" because she offers such useful counsel and demonstrates an intuitive understanding of what to do.

The office manager or personal assistant to the headteacher is - to use a civil service analogy - more permanent secretary than secretary, with a finger on the pulse of everything that is going on around the school.

I'd even say that teachers have a lot to learn from support staff, especially their capacity for taking the initiative and making autonomous decisions. A surprisingly large number of teachers are frightened to back their own judgements and do things their own way; instead they try to second-guess what Ofsted is looking for, changing their practice to fit the current trends. A lot of support staff operate with limited supervision and an even more limited brief. The very best of them take the initiative to mould and shape their roles in line with the needs of teachers, students and parents. The more of this that takes place in a school - or indeed any service or business - the better that organisation will perform.

I'm not suggesting that every support worker in every school is fantastic, any more than I would suggest that about every teacher, but I am suggesting that we should make a little more noise about these people, in the same way that we make noise about our finest educators. In a world of seemingly endless budget cuts, support staff are a much easier target for the axe than teachers, precisely because of their relative invisibility. We should do more to improve awareness and raise the status of such vital roles.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of social sciences at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, Kent

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