Schools

Schools struggle to find the support staff they need

Support staff vacancies have nearly doubled, new analysis suggests, leaving heads to fill growing gaps

Support staff vacancies have nearly doubled, new analysis suggests, leaving heads to fill growing gaps

30 Sep 2022, 5:00

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School support staff vacancies have almost doubled since before the pandemic, new analysis suggests.

An analysis of school and college job pages shows support roles were mentioned an additional 14,200 times in 2021-22, compared to pre-pandemic 2018-19.

The research by SchoolDash, shared exclusively with Schools Week, also shows a year-on-year increase in vacant roles at the start of the school year, when schools would normally have filled all their positions.

At one school, children with complex needs had to be sent home because staff members were unable to accommodate one-to-one support. Some headteachers have also been forced to take up caretaker duties such as opening up the school in the morning.

Surge in vacancies across all support staff jobs

SchoolDash analysed job advert boards from 5,238 secondary schools and sixth-form colleges over the past four academic years. Among 13 different types of school support staff roles found, 85 per cent were from secondaries.

Mentions of pastoral managers on job boards grew by a staggering 244 per cent since 2018-19.

This was followed by sports coaches (146 per cent), admin assistants (108 per cent), caretakers and cleaners (107 per cent) and cover supervisors (102 per cent).

Meanwhile, mentions of teaching assistants rose by 89 per cent but the actual numbers were vast – with 7,300 mentions in 2021-22.

A snapshot of listed roles on September 14 shows 606 teaching assistant positions, up from 375 on the same day in 2018 – a 62 per cent rise.

Deprived schools likely to be worst hit

While the SchoolDash data looked at just secondary schools, the impact could be even greater among primaries. 

Research from the Education Policy Institute shows two-thirds of teaching assistants work in primaries. Schools with more poorer pupils also spend the most on teaching assistants.

Headteacher Alan Brown has been opening and closing the school gates and carrying out safety checks at Oldfield Primary School in Chester after being unable to replace his newly-retired site manager.

Just two applicants applied for the job when it was posted back in July. One of those was offered the job, but he decided the salary would not cover relocation costs.

“We even considered offering additional overtime to make it more attractive for them, but it still wasn’t enough,” said Brown.

The school is now advertising again. In the meantime, it is Brown’s responsibility to clear fallen leaves from the playground this autumn.

‘Staff don’t have to be very good’

Jamie Barry, head at Yew Tree Primary School in Walsall, West Midlands, has three supply teaching assistants from recruitment agencies.

He “didn’t have problems” with filling non-teaching roles before Covid-19.

But job vacancies have risen to a record high in 2022, figures from the Office for National Statistics show. Public sector wages have fallen behind private sector wages in real terms.

According to the GMB Union, the median hourly wage for teaching assistants in 2021 was £10.46, while the basic hourly wage at Aldi is now £10.50.

Meanwhile, unions have already warned that a council offer of a £1,925 pay rise for support staff this academic year won’t go far enough.

“We do still get some people applying for jobs, but I’ve never seen such poor-quality applications,” said Barry. “Because there’s so many vacancies, to be quite blunt about it, they don’t have to actually be very good.”

‘Good lord, how am I going to recruit?’

Out in the Cumbrian sticks, Moresby Primary School recently lost its senior admin assistant to a better paid job that offered remote working.

When she applied to the role at Moresby, she was one of 30 applicants, said headteacher Ross Peacock. When it was readvertised this summer, they received just three applications.

“Last week I found out one of my teaching assistants is expecting, which is obviously a very happy thing and we are delighted for her,” he added.

“But it does mean I’m going to have to find somebody else later in the year and I’m already thinking ‘good lord, how am I going to do that’.”

Schools are struggling with a teacher recruitment crisis. But Thomas Moore, head at Bury C of E in West Sussex, said attracting teachers was easier than support staff.

“When we last put out an advert for a TA role in January we had to extend it. In the end we just had two applications,” he said. “Whereas with teaching ones, even for the most recent roles, we had nine applicants.”

The school is currently recruiting after-school club support due to increased demand from parents. Last year, teachers took on the job on rotation.

“But then they’re not able to do their work and planning,” said Moore. “I’m not sure how we’re going to recruit for it though.”

Apprenticeships and sweeteners

Chantal Dossantos, head of education partnerships of recruitment firm Eteach, said more schools are using sweeteners to entice staff. Examples include wellbeing programmes, childcare vouchers and free school lunches.

Anita Bath, chief executive at Bishop Bewick Catholic Education Trust in the North East, said heads are finding it harder to cater for an increase in children with educational health care plans (EHCPs) that have complex needs.

There had been incidents of children “having to go home because there just isn’t the person there to give them the support,” she added.

The trust, which runs 39 schools, is hoping to fill gaps through running its own apprenticeships. Another option is to set up open days where the trust could upsell all its vacancies to the local community.

“The real answer is people need to be paid more, but that isn’t an option at the moment,” said Bath.

In a statement, Unison head of education Mike Short said departures were causing “extra work and stress” for current staff.

“Soaring inflation is forcing support workers to take better paid, less stressful jobs in other sectors. Big challenges and low wages are putting off new recruits, leaving schools in dire straits,” he added.

The DfE did not respond to a request for comment.

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17 Comments

  1. Most support staff in schools are mum’s juggling childcare. School hours and holidays used to be enough to stomach the crap pay as there was no flexibility in the private sector for working mum’s. Covid turned this around for working women who can now stay in their sectors and work from home, popping out for the school run or deferring work to when kids are in bed. We now have options that we never had before, coupled with the rising private sector pay for jobs that have none of the stress or responsibility of working in a school. Time is up for rubbish pay for school support staff.

  2. Liz Watts

    Support staff are not paid for tea or lunch breaks and even worse they do not receive holiday pay. They rely on mothers who need to stay at home during the holidays to look after their own children. Support staff deserve better. Why would anyone want to work under those conditions??

  3. Adrian spriggs

    Once again the highly skilled school science technichans are not even mentioned. Without which science would t function . Not only are wages low but increasingly schools are cutting numbers. So a school that was hard pressed with 3 technichans can be down to one with the same amount of work expected.
    The low pay and lack of appreciation in some schools is leading to many experienced techs to take early retirement or leave the field. This means even those who are entering this job suffer from a lack of experienced techs to train them.
    We are the invisible backbone of school science

  4. I note there is no mention of school science technicians. This is essentially a skilled job (many schools require degree level science), which is paid at similar rates to admin assistants, support assistants and cleaners. When will schools understand that to get decent applicants they need to pay a decent wage?

  5. Deirdre Rose

    I saw this in my school. Support staff are underpaid and enormously undervalued. In fact my position is SO undervalued that it is not even mentioned in this article. I was a school technician, science to be precise, though most schools also have other technical support staff. Pointing teaching staff in the right direction to do SAFE practical work was a 2/3 times a week occurrence. Contrary to the believe of SLT none of their science staff fully understood the implications of everything they did. I was the only person in the school who knew what was in the chemical store and how to store some very dangerous substances. I was also the only person who actually knew how far the budget had to stretch. I retired last year and was replaced with a new chemistry graduate who only intended to stay for a year. There was no handover, in fact the person responsible for obtaining a new technician actually said to me “I don’t actually know what you do”. Undervalued indeed!!!!

  6. Nigel Mullen

    Hardly surprising given that as lead science technician I can actually earn more per hour packing chocolate in the chocolate factory near me. I would also add that as lead technician I am very highly skilled and this is not reflected in salary anymore, 12 years of salary stagnation has compounded this problem.

  7. Pat Kingston

    Interesting that there is no mention of the crippling lack of professional science technicians. The scientific technical positions are essential for science learning. Technicians require extensive knowledge of chemical and biological procedures and enhanced health and safety knowledge and training but always seem to he marginalised in education: not fitting under teaching nor support staff cohorts but firmly sitting somewhere in between. Yet this goes unrecognised, often conveniently ignored. Recruitment is becoming breathtakingly difficult and, if schools are lucky to attract applicants to their job vacancies, those who apply only stay in post until they realise that the retail sector’s pay and conditions are more favourable. Highly skilled, experienced and qualified technical staff often move into universities or private sector posts leaving school science departments bare to poor practice and potential litigation. The teacher/support staff divide simply doesn’t fit when dealing with professions such as science technicians within schools. I wholeheartedly sympathise with the pay and conditions for teaching assistants exacerbated by the swindle and insult that is a term time only contract without a retainer . However, the skills and knowledge needed for TA posts falls short of those needed in scientific technical posts that also, unfortunately, attract the same insulting pay and conditions yet appear to be unworthy of recognition in their plight.

  8. Fiona Peters

    No mention of school science technician’s of course. Sadly, recruitment in this sector is appalling. A highly skilled job, with in-depth knowledge (usually to degree level, but minimum A level) enhanced knowledge of health and safety and yet barely paid minimum wage. Sadly it is the students who will suffer as this practical subject becomes less hands on when there are no longer technicians to make it happen.

  9. Belinda Lake

    Absolutely no mention of science technicians (or DT and IT technicians either). Technicians are essential to the smooth running of practical lessons. Teachers do not have the time (nor specialist knowledge in many cases) to do their own preparation. Science technicians are expected to have knowledge of Biology, Chemistry and Physics alongside current H&S training and be able to juggle the need for resources against dwindling budgets. All for a salary that is only just above minimum wage but is knocked back by being term time only.
    Schools are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit staff, graduates need to earn more and see it as a job to fill the gap before a ‘real’ job comes along and, to be honest, working in a store for an equivalent wage also has the benefits of staff discounts, uniforms and the chance of being able to book a holiday outside of peak season.

  10. Janette

    No mention of the specialized role of science technicians who are responsible for providing support to teachers so they can teach and inspire scientists for the future .

  11. Why is there no mention of science technicians? 20 or so years ago the government’s own committee stated that school science technicians were woefully underpaid and were being exploited. No other occupation demands a degree for a minimum wage job. The science technician is highly qualified, has years of experience and valuable skills with the responsibility of keeping staff and students safe (remember asbestos in heat proof mats, 2,4 dnp, asbestos in gauzes? All dealt with by technicians) while ensuring that students can undertake meaningful practical work. A-level students cannot receive the practical endorsement element of their qualifications without actually doing the practical work provided by technicians. No practical endorsement means they would not be accepted onto university medical, engineering, pharmaceutical, dentistry etc courses meaning fewer people in these professions in the future. Difficulty recruiting school science technicians due to poor pay and conditions is just the start of a very worrying trend for future generations.

  12. Dr Jones

    As technical support (science) I have a varied job, which I absolutely love. I need to be competent in safe microbiology, handling of hazardous materials, basic electrical safety, processing hazardous waste for safe disposal, legally accountable secure storage of chemicals, trialling new experiments with an eye to both H&S and efficacy, regularly training new staff & trainee teachers in practical science work, stock control, equipment maintenance, glassware making, keeping everyone up to date on H&S updates and more. Oh and preparing and clearing practical lesson resources multiple times a day. Teaching staff have neither the time nor the expertise to do all of these things, and cost more per hour so it’s not cost-effective to expect them to. I am registered with my professional body, as per university and industry technical specialists. Oh, and yes, I also wash up the glassware after processing the contents for disposal.

    I’ve saved my school thousands by making kit we couldn’t afford to buy, and introducing more efficient ways of working. I am more highly qualified than all but one of the teachers. It took me four or five years to hit the top of my pay-scale, now no further progression is possible. There is no career structure. TTO and part-time (30hrs) contract, so pay is barely a thousand above the new NI threshold. If my partner is ever not able to work, that’s the day I go find a job elsewhere, as we couldn’t live on what I earn, despite my responsibilities in school. My partner is, in effect, subsidizing the school technical service.

    Technical support in schools is facing a huge crisis nationally. The age distribution is mainly youngsters entering the job market who soon move on to better-paid things to survive, or post-50 people who are currently resigning or retiring in droves. Their departure represents an enormous loss of cumulative experience from the profession. We are the behind-the-scenes mechanism that keeps science education functioning smoothly, so that we have a next generation of scientists capable of designing new vaccines, green energy innovations, and so on. Giving students practical, hands-on experience of science is something the UK does better than many other countries and is why the UK consistently punches above it’s weight in international science. You can’t learn to drive just by watching YouTube videos , you have to practice the physical and mental skills for real. The same is true of science. The current haemorrhaging of expertise and knowledge puts that at risk.

    The solution is not complicated – pay us enough to live on. Fund that pay properly, centrally, not by telling schools ‘pay your staff more out of your existing budget’. There is no way to do that without cutting jobs. Those job cuts fall disproportionately on support staff anyway, so it’s no wonder we can’t recruit.

  13. Anthony Guyver

    Why no mention of Science Technicians, undervalued, under paid and not respected for what they have to know and do. Described by a Government Select Committee some 20 years back as Blatantly exploited.

  14. L Clark

    No mention of lab/dt technicians. The most poorly paid ‘professionals’ in schools. Very few senior managers have a clue that the skillset required for these roles is huge, responsibility for safe storage and handling of numerous chemicals and complex apparatus, multitasking on a massive scale daily and in many cases being hugely understaffed for the amount if work needed. The pay is a pittance and there’s no job progression. The level of expertise and experience required and the health and safety responsibility should command a salary far in excess of what we get.