Teaching assistants are the unsung heroes of the school system. They play a key role in ensuring that our children and young people receive a full and rewarding education. They were the bedrock of operating school hubs for vulnerable children and those of key workers at the outset of the pandemic. But too often teaching assistants’ dedication and commitment to their work is taken for granted and they are called on to do tasks that don’t form part of their role. They may not hold the relevant experience or qualifications if standing in for absent teachers and are not properly paid to undertake many of the tasks they are expected to do. This was especially true during the pandemic but it's still happening. For example in one recent case in Carmarthenshire a teaching assistant was acting as a teacher for several weeks without receiving the additional pay to which she was entitled. Such examples are not rare, unfortunately.
According to the ‘Unsung Heroes’ report, commissioned by UNISON during the height of the pandemic, whilst many people were working from home “almost half of teaching assistants covered staff absences, enabling schools to stay open to vulnerable and key worker children. Just over half managed a whole class or bubble on their own. Just over a quarter led larger classes.”
Pay is a problem too. Teaching assistants can lose out simply by working the wrong side of a county border. Currently each council sets its own rates of pay for teaching assistants. As a result, a worker in one county can earn up to £3,000 less than a colleague doing the same work in another county. We want to see consistent pay for teaching assistants so that they don’t miss out.
Our greatest concern of all is that teaching assistants are a low paid workforce. Unlike teachers they are not paid during school holidays, which can often causes hardship and uncertainty. This low pay affects women more than men as there are more women working as teaching assistants. According to a recent analysis a teaching assistant salary advertised at a pro rata rate of £18,000 is worth only £13,000 a year as staff are not paid during school holidays.
Teaching assistants also miss out because they aren't given the same opportunities as others to train and enhance their careers. As a professionally registered group, teaching assistants should be entitled to proper training and a healthy career path. For example, they aren’t given paid time off for training, apart from Inset days. That is why at its Congress this year, the Wales TUC called for the fair and equitable treatment of teaching assistants.
The pandemic highlighted the crucial role of teaching assistants in our schools and brought to light the inconsistent and irrational way teaching assistants are managed, trained and paid. There was overwhelming agreement – from teaching assistants, union representatives, the Welsh government, school leaders and local authorities that something needed to be done. That’s why we are very pleased that a sub-group has been formed as part of the Welsh Schools Partnership forum to tackle this matter.
Under the leadership of Gerry McNamara, a head teacher from Blaenau Gwent the group has come forward with a set of recommendations that would improve working life for teaching assistants and improve education in Wales.
The recommendations include:
These recommendations and the work of the group show the benefit of the Welsh way of approaching difficult problems. The school social partnership forum brings together workers, employers and the government to work together for the benefit of everyone.
The recommendations have the support of Jeremy Miles, the Minister for Education now it's up to us to work together at a local and national level to take these actions forwards.
Voices from the classroom, Wendy Lewis is a teaching assistant practitioner and GMB workplace representative in south east Wales who helped write the proposals in the support staff report.
“Teaching assistants were used throughout the pandemic supporting vulnerable children” she said, “but our role isn’t fully acknowledged, and we feel undervalued.”
“I love what I do but I can’t afford to do what I do. It is not an economic decision to do this work.”
Teaching assistants should be offered full time contracts in common with other members of school staff. We are skilled and valuable members of the school workforce and need to be treated as such.”
Jan Murray is a teaching assistant practitioner and UNISON workplace representative from Swansea and a member of the group which drew up the recommendations for action.
“Across Wales our professional abilities and skills should be recognised and used appropriately. We should receive a consistent salary which recognises our worth in all parts of the country. I could work three or four miles away in a different county and receive completely different pay and conditions.
“As teaching assistants, we have a unique set of skills, which should be recognised. For example, teaching assistants are often highly skilled in providing support to children with additional learning needs.”