Headteachers across the country say they can’t fill essential teaching assistant positions and support staff are taking second jobs in supermarkets to survive because their pay is “just a joke”.
Schools report that more and more teaching assistants are leaving because they will not be able to pay the high energy bills and afford food this winter. And since vacancies often don’t generate any applications at all, heads fear they’ll be impossible to replace. They warn that this will have serious consequences for children in the classroom, especially those with special educational needs, and will make it increasingly difficult for teachers to focus on teaching.
Sam Browne, head teacher at Radnage Church of England primary school in Buckinghamshire, said one of its most capable TAs resigned in tears a week ago because she loved her job but wasn’t earning enough to survive.
“She has a child in nursery and by the time she has paid the childcare allowance she will be earning £10 a day,” he said. “It used to be difficult, but now she can’t survive.”
He added: “The pay for TAs and support staff is just a joke.”
Heads say they will struggle to fund the £1,925 pay increase for support staff offered by local authorities with no extra money for schools at the start of the summer. But they also feel that it doesn’t go far enough.
Long Furlong Primary School in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, has been advertising a TA for over a year to provide one-on-one support to a vulnerable child with special needs. They have two similar job openings and are in their fifth ad round.
Carol Dunne, the head of the school, said: “I have just re-posted the ad on social media alongside an ad for the local Aldi which pays £11.40 an hour. Our position pays £10 an hour. That way they get more work in a supermarket.” Dunne added that a good candidate recently dropped out when she realized she would be “worse off working at the school than on welfare”.
Claire Pegler, a full-time TA at a primary school in Gloucestershire, currently works evening and weekend shifts at a supermarket to keep her head above water. She told the Observer: “I’m on the edge and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to leave school, but I’m considering whether I can handle working in the supermarket full-time.”
Two of Pegler’s TA colleagues at the school are interviewing for additional grocery store work next week. Her school has been advertising TAs since April last year and recently hired two students because they had no applications. “I love my job, but I understand why people don’t apply,” Pegler said. “Unless you have a partner who supports you with a good wage, the wage is unsustainable.”
Steve Howell, head teacher of the City of Birmingham School, a pupil referral unit for pupils aged five to 16, said: “Five years ago we would advertise two TA posts and get 150 applicants. Now you are lucky to have three or four We’re now advertising 10 TAs and there’s very little interest.”
Most of Howell’s students have behavioral needs and are “dissatisfied and out of school” when they enroll. Howell employs a larger-than-average number of TAs to support the children and says they are “the lifeblood of the school.”
“It’s often the people kids turn to when they’re angry or upset,” he explains. “They de-escalate behavioral problems so that teachers can continue teaching.”
In addition to not being able to recruit, Howell says sticking to TAs is a “big problem.” “It’s the first time in my 10 years as school leadership that support staff say they just can’t afford to keep doing their jobs. Working in a retail store will pay you more,” he said.
Mike Short, head of education at the Unison union, said support staff were leaving schools “in large numbers” due to “chronically low wages”.
He said: “Dedicated, experienced workers cannot add up the amounts as household bills rise. And schools can’t recruit new staff, which is a disaster for children’s education.”
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education said: “We are grateful for the work of all education support staff and we recognize that schools – like the wider society – face cost pressures.”
She added: “It is up to schools to set the salary of their support staff”, but said the government “raised basic funding for schools by £4bn this year, as well as cut their energy bills”.