Your workload: headteachers - Support staff prove their worth

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Most heads believe support staff are a positive influence in school life, but several say the inflexibility of the workforce agreement makes their job even harder

The vast majority of headteachers and deputies believe the increased role of support staff after the workforce agreement has had a positive impact on their schools.

A TES survey of primary and secondary leaders found that 77 per cent thought the increase in support staff had improved education, and 62 per cent thought the agreement had had a positive effect overall.

Responses to the poll revealed a general warmth towards the agreement, and a sense of gratitude for what delegating to support staff had allowed leaders to achieve.

Heads and deputies spoke of improved staff morale, greater communication and teamwork across their schools, and a sense that teachers were more valued.

A number of respondents said support staff were enjoying an improved career structure and greater self-esteem.

Peter Malcolm, head of Rayleigh Primary in Essex, said: "Primary teachers are getting some of the non-contact time secondary teachers have enjoyed for years."

Janet Dolan, head of Kingsbury Green Primary in Brent, north west London, was pleased that finally there was an understanding that "teaching in the 21st century is complex work and that teachers need to be able to think just about teaching, not photocopying or collecting money".

One head highlighted the fact that the increase in support staff had helped pupils see members of their own community succeed in education careers.

"We see better behaviour in classes as pupils view support staff as part of the teaching team, and this has ensured greater respect for them," he said.

Kenny Frederick, head of George Green's Secondary School in the Isle of Dogs, east London, said her support staff provided a sense of continuity in a school that had experienced a rapid turnover of teachers. "I am positive about the reforms, but we had been doing this for a long before it became a government thing," she said.

However, the TES poll also revealed concerns about the agreement, with 20 per cent of the 200 respondents saying it had had a negative impact on education, and nearly the same number saying it had made no difference. A smaller group, 16 per cent, singled out support staff for having a negative effect.

Other worries centred around the cost of planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time, with many complaining that it was unsustainable on financial grounds.

The National Association of Head Teachers withdrew from the agreement in 2005, arguing that there was insufficient funding to cover PPA. Although the situation has eased recently, Mick Brookes, the association's general secretary, has warned it could become tricky under the tighter 2008-2011 budget.

One solution has been put forward by Jim Knight, schools minister, who has mooted employing 16-year-old graduates of the new society, health and development diploma as apprentice teaching assistants in primaries. But whether this idea would be popular with parents or teachers is unclear.

The inflexibility of the agreement has also frustrated heads, a number of whom thought it had added to their bureaucratic burden.

Chris Edwards, head of Westbourne Sports College in Suffolk, said: "The agreement is an obstacle to effective working practices. What other profession has such a pedantic list of do's and don'ts?"

Some heads complained that there had been a "loss of goodwill" in schools, with a minority of teachers refusing to be flexible, leaving heads to pick up the pieces.

Louise Edwards, a Birmingham head, said: "There has been a withdrawal of some goodwill as everything has become clearly defined and unambiguous. If things are `not someone's job', they tend not to do them. In the past there was less of this happening."

Other heads raised concerns about the quality of some teaching assistants and lack of clarity over their roles.

Jill Vavasour, head of the Knightlow CofE Primary School in Warwickshire, summarised the attitude: "A tiny minority of teaching assistants have lost respect for teachers and feel that they can do the job the teachers do, even though they can't.

"They do not always appreciate the time and energy that goes into planning, marking and assessment because they do not do this.

"Until there is more clarity and very clearly defined job descriptions, this will be the case."

There also seems to be some confusion over how far schools have come in putting the agreement into effect. A TES survey of teachers found that 47 per cent thought their school had not implemented it in full. But 80 per cent of heads and deputies said it had.

Stephen Szemerenyi, pay and conditions consultant for the Association of School and College Leaders, added: "Our view is that implementation is going well. But some big gaps remain - heads' workload is not going down."

How governors can take some pressure off their headteacher

Review the governing body's committee structure to produce a more streamlined arrangement.

Ensure the head is not required to attend every committee meeting.

Check for areas of responsibility that the head could delegate to senior staff.

Ensure that all the administrative functions for the governing body have been removed from the head.

Make work-life balance part of performance management, and write the priorities into the school improvement plan.

Consider how to embed work-life balance in school processes and procedures, for example, absence policy.

Make staff work-life balance a regular item on the staffing committee agenda.

(Source: National Governors' Association).

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