Support staff: the hidden casualties of austerity

26th February 2016 at 00:00
With teacher numbers protected, councils are looking elsewhere to make budget cuts, Emma Seith finds – with potentially disastrous consequences for ASN

Research has proven the vital role that school librarians play in improving literacy; technicians are needed to make practical work possible in science classrooms; clerical staff free up headteachers to lead; quality improvement officers drive up standards in schools; and without support staff in classrooms, inclusion will fail.

All of the above points have been demonstrated by major studies. However, a TESS analysis of official figures shows that the number of support staff in Scottish schools dropped by nearly 10 per cent between 2010 and 2015 (from 19,332 to 17,498).

School administrators, behaviour support staff, technicians, librarians and those who are assisting children with additional support needs (ASN) have all been hit.

The number of behaviour support staff working in Scottish schools has dropped by more than a third; library staff and office managers by over a quarter; and administrators and additional support staff for ASN pupils by about 10 per cent (see graphic, opposite).

The number of school support staff employed at council level – from quality improvement officers to music instructors – has also been slashed, with the total employed across Scotland’s 32 councils dropping by 20 per cent between 2010 and 2014 (figures for 2015 have yet to be published).

Classroom assistants have bucked the trend, increasing by 7 per cent between 2010 and 2015, from 5,048 to 5,426.

However, over the same period, the number of pupils in Scottish schools rose by 15 per cent, while the number of children classed as having an ASN more than doubled.

Scottish teachers have long bemoaned the erosion of support staff, but that anecdotal evidence can now be backed up with hard facts, laying bare the impact of council budget cuts.

Education directors recently acknowledged the problem in a key document setting out what was needed for Scottish education to move forward (“Education directors bid to end postcode lottery”, Insight, 29 January).

The resources that teachers need – from support staff to jotters – are being diminished because of austerity, they say, and this is likely to lead to a system “that has big ambitions but lacks the wherewithal to deliver”.

Pupils ‘denied specialist help’

Cutting support staff posts “denies pupils specialist help and adds more work on to teachers, preventing them from doing the job they do best”, says Mike Kirby, Scottish secretary of the union Unison, which represents support staff. “Education is delivered by a whole team, not just a teacher,” he adds.

And it could get a whole lot worse. The government’s promise to maintain teacher numbers is leading to “greater cuts in other parts of the system”, says Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders’ body AHDS.

Support staff cuts are increasing pressure on promoted staff and making the role of headteacher increasingly unappealing, he adds – a stark warning given that education directors have identified the teacher and headteacher recruitment crisis as the “most immediate challenge” facing Scottish education and “a major risk to the system”.

One headteacher tells TESS that she would rather see the council tax freeze lifted than endure more cuts. As head of a 500-pupil primary in the south west of Scotland, she expects that once her council sets its budget for the coming year classroom assistant numbers will fall again and she will have to half the clerical staff that the school had when she joined it five years ago.

“The remaining staff will have to spend their time dealing with people as they come in and responding to phone calls rather than filing or record-keeping or report-writing,” she warns. “These activities will fall to us; the senior management team.”

The headteacher also mourns the loss of quality improvement officers. They provide support and challenge to schools and ask leaders “the questions that clarify their thinking”, she says.

ASN education at risk

Meanwhile, Sheila Riddell, who is professor of inclusion and diversity at the University of Edinburgh, warns that the inclusion of children with ASN in mainstream schools risks “hitting the buffers” unless more investment is made in teachers and support staff.

“It is almost impossible for a mainstream teacher to operate an inclusive classroom with several children with an identified additional support need without other adults in the room,” she explains.

Disability rights campaigners from Enable Scotland claim that mainstream schools are not truly inclusive. Earlier this month, the charity launched a national conversation to explore what needs to change in Scottish classrooms to make children with ASN feel genuinely included (see box, “The elephant in the room”, below).

Dempster predicts that things will get worse before they get better, saying that the TESS findings “come as no surprise to me”.

“Indeed, I think they will be the start of a downward trend rather than an end point,” he adds. “For some time, AHDS has been highlighting the need to properly resource Scottish education if the challenging improvement agenda is to be properly implemented.

“Protecting teacher numbers is an entirely understandable political goal, but in the context of declining budgets, it necessitates greater cuts in other parts of the system, which will disadvantage teachers and education in the long term.”

In 2015, 153,190 pupils had a recorded ASN – 22.5 per cent of all pupils. In 2010, the figure was 69,587 – just over 10 per cent of all pupils.

Riddell says: “Identifying more children as having ASN implies that these children are getting additional support, but we have no evidence that additional support is being provided. It certainly does not appear that in mainstream schools, additional resources are being made available.

“Inclusion is in danger of hitting the buffers unless something is done to counteract the declining numbers of…support staff.”


‘The elephant in the room’

The fact that inclusion is failing is “the elephant in the room”, says Jan Savage, campaigns and external affairs director at learning disability charity Enable Scotland.

The charity intends to build up a picture of what education is like for disabled pupils by starting a national conversation through its “Included in the Main?!” campaign, launched earlier this month.

It hopes that stories from children, their parents and the professionals working with them can be used to update national guidance on mainstreaming.

Find out more about the campaign at

School librarians: the final chapter?

Argyll and Bute council announced last week that it will cut all of its 10 secondary school librarian posts in the coming academic year in order to save just over £190,000.

In Glasgow, one librarian is shared between every two schools; Renfrewshire has seven librarians across 11 schools; and in South Ayrshire, library assistants have replaced qualified librarians.

Overall, TESS found that the number of library staff working in schools fell by 26 per cent between 2010 and 2015.

Scottish pupils are subject to a postcode lottery regarding the level of library service they receive, Duncan Wright, a senior school librarian at Stewart’s Melville College in Edinburgh, recently told MSPs.

The Save Scotland’s School Libraries campaign – which is spearheaded by Wright – is petitioning the government for a new national strategy for school libraries.

“School libraries are not just about shelves of books, computers and the issuing and the returning of books,” Wright says. “A good school librarian can put the right book into the right child’s hand at the right time.”

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