Would you treat pupils the way you treat support staff?

Most who work in schools aren't teachers – but their representation in the sector is abysmal, writes Hilary Goldsmith

Hilary Goldsmith

Why do we treat school support staff like second-class citizens, asks Hilary Goldsmith

It’s 1 September. Imagine a school assembly hall full of eager faces, sitting in rows either side of a central aisle. Those on the right-hand side are Team T, those on the left Team S. Both sides have excellent attendance, they work hard and they love coming to school.

The headteacher mounts the steps to the stage. 

The head starts to talk to Team T about all the exciting things that are going to be happening this year. They hear about their successes over the summer, about how much hard work will be required of them, about some new challenges that they will have to work through together, and how the school has planned for the changes carefully, to ensure that everyone in the Team T achieves the very best they can.

There will be a series of activities after school for them to be part of, where they can explore their interests, learn new skills and meet new friends from other schools, who will also be taking part in these exciting events across the local area.

There will be trips, special events and pots of money set aside specifically to bring out the very best in them. They will have regular meetings with their mentors, to make sure they are staying on track. And they will be supported at all times by specially trained members of the senior leadership team.

There will be opportunities for some of them to become team leaders and to earn financial rewards for special projects that they take on. Team T are visibly excited about the start of term and want to get started as soon as possible.

Giving a voice to school support staff

Then the headteacher moves to the other side of the stage, looks at the clock and checks the agenda. 

The head thanks Team S for sitting quietly and listening. Four individuals are given a special mention, for picking up litter without being asked, and for putting the chairs out for everyone to sit on this morning. Team T clap and nod their thanks. 

Team S are told that a few of them can also come along to a couple of Team T’s events this year if they like. There will be a sign-up sheet in Reception for a limited number of spaces. Unfortunately, there isn’t a pot of money for Team S, as it’s all been spent on Team T. But if anyone in Team S would like to volunteer for any of the extra responsibilities, they can probably help out, too. Team S smile, but look a little bit sad. 

The headteacher then claps their hands, wishes everyone a successful term, and leaves the assembly hall.

It couldn't happen, could it? Schools are centres of inclusion, where everyone is treated fairly and equitably, regardless of their status. Every child matters: that’s written in statute, and all schools pride themselves on the highest standards of differentiation and inclusivity. There is no way on Earth that a situation like this could ever happen, is there? 

So let’s look at it from another angle. What if, say, Team T weren’t a specially selected group of favoured students at all, but were, in fact, the school’s teachers? And what if Team S were made up of members of the support staff? 

A two-tier system

Does it look a bit more familiar now? Uncomfortable, isn’t it? Yet, up and down the country, this will be the welcome-back speech that many of us will hear.

Let’s be honest here. We know we have a two-tier system in education staffing: teaching and non-teaching. Teachers are paid more than support staff, and have better terms and conditions, recognition, career paths, professional bodies and standing. Let’s also acknowledge that teachers will have far more direct impact on children’s educational outcomes than anyone else. 

But that doesn't mean that our approach to school staffing has to be an either/or option. Nor should it mean that every school treats its support staff as second-class citizens. Some headteachers have established a truly equitable community of professionals, where every member of the team is valued for the role they play. But not all. 

And it isn’t just a school-wide issue. Far too many times, Department for Education literature refers to “teachers”, completely forgetting to acknowledge any of the other professionals who work in schools. 

In actual fact, there are more adults in our schools who are not teachers than those who are. The School Workforce in England census for November 2019 stated that, of the 945,805 adults who worked in England’s schools, more than half were not teachers. 

Teachers are the minority

That’s a startling fact: teachers are in the minority of school workers. More than 52 per cent of education workers are carrying out roles that support children and education in ways other than classroom teaching. Yet representation of those professionals in the wider education sector is abysmal.

Setting aside pay and conditions as a bigger battle for another day, how often do we see panels of education experts where school business leaders are represented? As the lead professionals in school funding, HR, health and safety and operation, they might bring useful and vital insights into those areas of national discussion. It’s an astonishing lost opportunity.

What am I asking for? Certainly not a magic wand that fixes everything. Not fair pay, equitable treatment or equal representation for support staff on the panels, committees and boards that preside over our education system. That would be ludicrous. Education is about teaching, and all those who value our education system know that without an absolute focus on high-quality teachers, teaching and educational standards, the rest of it has little purpose.

But what I am asking for is one seat. One seat on the panel, when the subject is something that is not purely pedagogical. One seat around the SLT table for the person tasked with funding and resourcing our strategic plans and ensuring their compliance. One seat on the sector councils, review bodies and focus groups to represent that 52 per cent. 

I’m asking for a conscious consideration of the language we use around our staff body. For training sessions to be signposted to all who might benefit from them, and for development opportunities to be open to all who might have relevant experience and skills, regardless of QTS. 

And, if you are the headteacher who will walk up on stage on 1 September, don’t stint on the support you give to team T: they deserve every bit of it. But keep Team S in mind, and see if there is room for them to shuffle their chairs over to the other side of the gangway.

We are all working in schools for one aim: to support our children in the very best way we can. Please embrace everyone in our school workforce. Give them the chance to offer their professional expertise wherever and whenever they can.

Hilary Goldsmith is a school business manager in the South of England

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Hilary Goldsmith

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