Schools in England risk losing TAs to supermarkets over ‘chronic’ low pay

Exclusive: report finds cost of living crisis driving teaching assistants into other work and budget cuts will mean fewer roles

Schools in England risk “haemorrhaging” vital teaching assistants to better-paid jobs in supermarkets and other places because of the cost of living crisis with recruitment becoming increasingly difficult, according to a report.

Headteachers have also said that cuts to school budgets and promised staff pay rises – that will not be funded by the government – will put schools in a desperate situation and many will have to cut TA roles, taking away support for some of the most vulnerable children.

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth’s Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit said the “chronic” low pay of TAs – despite their increased role in many schools – was an “an urgent threat to TAs’ livelihoods and to schools”.

Dr Rob Webster, a University of Portsmouth researcher who co-authored the report with Dr Sophie Hall, said: “Schools are facing many challenges, but the consequence of the loss of teaching assistants is the most catastrophic. Without these staff, schools will struggle to provide adequate support to children with additional needs. Teachers’ workloads will also skyrocket, driving yet more from the profession and deterring others from joining.”

Almost all – 96% – of TAs questioned for the report said their pay was not enough to cover their needs, and many who spoke to the report’s authors said their commitment to improving the lives of the most vulnerable children kept them in post. “It’s never, never been about the money. I definitely wouldn’t be doing this for the money,” said one.

One headteacher said a rolling advert for eight TAs had attracted only one since January. Another told the report’s authors: “Basically, I think we will start haemorrhaging TAs. Not only here, but in other places, because you can get paid more money in the supermarket.”

Headteachers are resorting to offering “wellbeing days” and special treats alongside access to more training and a greater voice in the school to encourage TAs to stay at schools, even as many struggle to pay for the petrol to get to work, the report found.

The most effective actions taken by schools to retain TAs were “including them in the school community and school processes, such as lesson planning, and investing in and supporting their development as classroom professionals”, said the report.

The Unison-commissioned report, From Covid to the Cost of Living: The Crises Remaking the Role of Teaching Assistants, found that the pandemic has transformed TAs’ role “potentially forever”.

“Teaching assistants stepped up during the pandemic and repeatedly proved their worth, as they ​were doing long before the crisis struck,” said Unison’s head of education, Mike Short. “But chronic low pay is threatening to rob classrooms of dedicated, experienced staff, just when schools need them most.”

A previous Unison-commissioned report by researchers at UCL’s Institute for Education found nearly nine out of 10 (88%) TAs supported vulnerable and key-worker children in school during lockdown, with 51% managing a whole class or bubble on their own, as teachers prepared and taught remote lessons, often from home.

The report – which looks at the“recovery” year (2021-22) and includes data from 22 interviews with TAs, teachers and headteachers from five primary schools in England – finds TAs are now helping students who have fallen behind, supporting their emotional needs, filling in for special educational needs and disability (Send) staff, such as speech and language therapists, and supporting parents and carers.

This has “led to marked increases in TAs’ workload and their emotional load pre-pandemic” even as pay has stagnated, according to the report’s authors. In one school, TAs were running toilet-training workshops, while another TA spoke of how parents often approached them with family and financial problems.

The report’s authors have called on the government to take urgent action and “provide sufficient financial support so that TAs can meet rising costs and schools can retain their TAs”, adding that a failure to do so was “likely to have serious implications for maintaining Send provision and teacher workload and retention”.

The report recommends a government survey of schools to reveal changes to the role of TAs, the impact of the pandemic, and the rising cost of living on the recruitment and retention of TAs and teachers.

‘I don’t know how my school would function without TAs’

Sian Carr, the headteacher at Townhill junior school in Southampton, is already seeing the impact of the cost of living crisis on teaching assistants. A number of TAs at Townhill have starting working in the school as lunchtime supervisors and cleaners to make ends meet.

Sian Carr
Sian Carr: ‘TAs are fundamental to children’s wellbeing.’ Photograph: Handout

“TAs are so incredibly poorly paid, people can’t survive on it in this climate,” she says. Carr is clear about the importance of TAs. “If you haven’t got teaching assistants you can’t follow the best practice for teaching,” she says. “We have a number of children – and this is also because of Covid – who come up who are not ready in terms of their reading level and need to do phonics and daily reading. And there’s no way a class teacher can listen to every child read every day, while teaching effectively.”

In Carr’s school 49% of children come from disadvantaged backgrounds and 29% need additional support – so the TAs also provide vital pastoral care, she says. “I don’t actually know how my school would function without them,” she says. “They are so fundamental to the children’s wellbeing.”

Despite this, she has had to cut the number of TAs. Three years ago every class had a teaching assistant; now there is one for each three-class year, she says.

“There is no wriggle room in school budgets any more,” she says. “The children need to have a pencil, they have to have something to write in, obviously we have gas and electric bills going up – it’s the only thing we have got left that we can cut.”

And there is a new storm on the horizon. Schools are struggling to pay soaring energy and wage bills, while a proposed 5% increase to wages will not be covered by the government but will have to come from already squeezed budgets. The school is, says Carr, significantly worse off than at any time in the past five years.

“Where are those pay rises coming from when it’s in the public sector?” she asks. “That’s what is actually morally repugnant in this: people cannot survive without these pay rises, but if we give them the pay rises, I’m not quite sure how schools will survive.”


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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