EPI study reveals postcode lottery of support staff spending

Pupils face a postcode lottery when it comes to spending on school support staff, with some schools spending up to 64 per cent more than others on teaching assistants.

Analysis by the Education Policy Institute found that although the number of teaching assistants employed by state-funded schools in England has more than trebled since the turn of the century, there is a “considerable gap in expenditure on school support staff between the highest and lowest spenders”.

Per-pupil expenditure on education support staff increased by 138 per cent in real terms between 2002-03 and 2016-17, the EPI said. Over the same period, the number of full-time-equivalent teaching assistants in state-funded English schools rose from 79,000 to 260,000.

However, unions have warned that more recent cuts have left school support staff “feeling the brunt” of school cuts, with redundancies forcing those left in the system to do more.

The EPI study warned that the recent rapid rise in number, and mixed findings on impact of support staff, mean that “some settings may view reducing teaching assistants as a way of achieving efficiency savings if faced with budget pressures”.

The research shows that there are huge variations in the amounts different schools spend on TAs and other support staff.

For example, the highest spenders at primary level spend 51 per cent more than the lowest. At secondary, the gap is 64 per cent.

The gaps are much larger than differences in spending on teachers; 19 per cent at primary and 15 per cent at secondary.

There is also a big variation in spending on support staff at schools with disadvantaged intakes (45 per cent at primary level, 47 per cent at secondary), despite the fact they spend more on TAs.

According to the EPI, this means that that “despite the overall poor-affluent divide in spending, there are still a large proportion of more affluent schools which are outspending disadvantaged schools on support staff”.

Jon Andrews, the EPI’s deputy head of research, said: “The value schools appear to attach to teaching assistants varies considerably.

“Some schools choose to invest significantly, while others have decided to prioritise spending elsewhere. While there is huge variation within different types of schools, those with high proportions of disadvantaged pupils and pupils with special educational needs often see far higher levels of expenditure.”

Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, which represents support staff, said the report “gives a welcome insight into the levels of spending across the country, but misses some key issues”.

“Teaching assistants play a vital role in helping young people achieve their full potential,” he said.

“But they shouldn’t be judged narrowly on academic attainment. TAs provide important pastoral care, manage behaviour and provide general support, which all enrich learning.

“We need to look at the different skill levels and knowledge of teaching assistants. Sadly many schools are reducing the number of more experienced, and so better paid, staff to cut costs. This means lower-graded TAs pick up work for which they haven’t been trained.”