The impact of austerity on the unsung heroes of education – support staff

Do let Voice know your experiences. The more evidence we can take to government, the better.

By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice

Article for the January 2018 issue of Your Voice

According to the latest school workforce census, there are over 265,000 full time equivalent (FTE) teaching assistants (TAs) in schools in England and approximately a further 23,000 technicians.  As most non-teaching staff work part time, this means the FTE number of TAs alone is significantly higher.  Previous studies have quoted the number to be over 350,000, equating to approximately 25% of the school workforce in the England and 10% of the total education budget.

Teaching assistants, like their teaching and other non-teaching colleagues, have become an integral part of school life.  They support many children who find school a challenge to access learning in a way most appropriate to them and their learning needs.  In doing so, they make learning accessible, even enjoyable, and so enable children to succeed.

Several studies into the effectiveness of the role of TAs, their contribution to learning outcomes and, of course, value for money have been undertaken.  Although some studies question the value of TAs, others make compelling reading and provide evidence about the effectiveness of their contribution to pupil progress and outcomes.

The evidence demonstrates that when they are trained, participate in planning and, importantly, are deployed appropriately, teaching assistants add value to teacher input, supporting the development of independent learning skills and delivering structured interventions.  Evidence also demonstrates that effective use of TAs can add two to four months’ additional progress. This is assurance of value in terms of learning outcomes and for money.


There is no doubt that parents, teachers and headteachers value TAs and hold them in high regard. But despite the figures in the school workforce census stating that the number of TAs is increasing, we are hearing differently from our members.

We know, from the volume of member casework and advice requested and given about redundancy, job evaluation and Single Status, that endless restructuring in schools, driven by austerity measures, and the worrying state of education funding, is resulting in a range of measures which impacts on the continued employment of support staff across the UK.  The spectrum ranges from reduction of hours to total loss of posts.  If such action is an attempt to balance the books, surely the loss of such valuable staff members is a false economy.  There is no doubt that school leaders and governing bodies are in unenviable situations.

The reason for the apparent anomaly between data and our own experience, and that of members, is that although there has been a small increase in TA numbers in the nursery and primary phases, there has been a 4.2% decrease in secondary education.  Overall, school support staff numbers (including technicians and others) have decreased by 1.3% – again, something more pronounced in secondary education.

Teaching assistants, technicians and other support staff members are professionals fulfilling a professional role; they are the unsung heroes of education. The lack of education funding and flexibility within the system appears to prevent investment in the school support staff workforce.

This does not mean, however, that Voice remains silent on this matter. We continue to engage with national governments on your behalf to address the situation.  We continue to lobby for the adoption of a set of professional standards for teaching assistants (SecEd) in schools and colleges, supported by a standard job description and national pay scale, to avoid the debacle of job evaluation, Single Status and wildly different job descriptions and salary ranges for professionals with the same skills, doing the same job, in neighbouring schools and areas.

Do let Voice know your experiences. The more evidence we can take to government, the better.

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