Misunderstood school support workers role more than ‘mums’ army’

School support workers are heroes who keep schools going, a union conference has heard.

There is a “gross misunderstanding” that support staff – such as teaching assistants, caretakers and lab technicians – are simply a “mum’s army” who “wash paint pots”, the National Education Union’s (ATL section) annual conference in Liverpool was told.

One teacher told how support workers have helped her survive her first year in the classroom, while another described the different roles they play in schools – from setting up experiments to raising issues that could save a child’s life.

Laura Khan, an NEU member from Bury, said: “Support staff, you are professionals and you are our heroes.”

She said support workers had helped her through her year as a newly qualified teacher, telling the conference: “If I hadn’t had the support staff… I wouldn’t have got through, I wouldn’t have survived.”

Ms Khan added that support staff also helped her in her return to work after maternity leave, saying: “They are my absolute rock and without them I would be completely lost.”

Christine Bennett, from the Essex, Southend and Thurrock branch, who has been in teaching for over 40 years, said she worked as a supply teacher in recent years, and that every time she goes into a school “it was the teaching assistants, the support staff, that keep the school going.”

Proposing a motion on support staff, Graham Easterlow, a member from North Yorkshire and York, said if he was asked today why he is a support worker, he would say: “I am the lab technician who has taken an hour at the end of the day to set up an exciting experiment, I am the librarian who has just introduced some Year 9 girls to Emily Dickinson, I am the IT technician who has dropped everything to run to classroom four to sort out Year 7’s whiteboard, I am the TA who has spent the last three hours working one to one with that child who is just having a bad day, I am the school bursar who has just spent part of their Easter holidays finalising the end of year accounts, I am the lunchtime supervisor who has just raised a safeguarding concern that might save a child’s life. I am support staff.”

The union passed a resolution that said: “Support staff members are still not being respected as a valued and professional part of the education workforce.”

It adds: “There is a gross misunderstanding of the varied and vital roles that support staff undertake within education, leading to misconceptions about the value and professional standing of this essential and diverse workforce.

“These misconceptions mean that support staff are often left behind or left out when it comes to training and development, stifling chosen career paths.

“Also, there is still the perception that support staff are a ‘mums’ army’ who do little more than wash paint pots and create displays. The reality is much different.”

Official figures show that as of November 2016, there were around 387,900 teaching assistants working in England’s state schools, along with 450,900 other school support staff.

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