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Teaching assistants: underpaid, under pressure

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The findings of a recent survey of  teaching assistants (TAs) carried out by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) don’t throw up many surprises. It’s not much of a shock that a lot of respondents reported that they often work overtime because their workload demands it. What’s more, 70% of those who worked overtime reported that this overtime was unpaid.

But this is just the latest evidence that TAs are under pressure. A survey carried out by Unison back in 2013 found that the majority of respondents were working unpaid hours. In addition, almost all respondents were concerned about pay and didn’t feel secure in their jobs.

Concern about pay is also unsurprising. While the school workforce statistics show us average teachers’ pay, they don’t mention average TA pay. For some rough statistics on this, you have to go back to 2010, when the TES created a table showing who earns what in education. TAs were bottom by a distance. It can’t help that, according to a DfE statistical first release, just under 90% are employed part-time.

I spoke to Christine Lewis, Unison's national officer for education, about this. She said that “the inconsistency in pay and conditions, and general low level of pay, is a constant concern and term-time working never goes away”. However, she also spoke about the work that Unison is doing to support TAs with, for example, its Skills for Schools training website.

It’s not just Unison. Plenty of unions have come out on behalf of TAs, and school leaders themselves appreciate the work that TAs do. However, support from government and politicians currently seems a bit lacklustre.

In a piece for Schools Week, a spokesperson from the DfE responded to ATL’s survey by explaining that findings like this were why the workload challenge was launched.

However, it seems pretty clear that the workload challenge was set up to address the needs of teachers, not TAs. The challenge was launched in a speech by Nick Clegg last October. At no point in the speech does he mention TAs or support staff. He does refer to the project as “our new workload challenge for teachers”, though.

Similarly, the workload challenge response analysis shows that barely any TAs responded. Page 12 says that only 1% of those included in the sample of respondents used were support staff. The analysis of the findings rarely mentions TAs, and is titled 'Workload challenge: analysis of teacher consultation responses'. The challenge was aimed at teachers, and it's difficult to see how it will address TA workloads. It might even be the opposite – if work is being taken away from teachers, who is this work being given to?

I think this is a shame, as it’s important that we do start including TAs in national discussions about workloads in the education sector. TAs are not a group that can just be ignored: they make up 25% of school staff.

The recent focus from politicians on reducing teachers’ workloads is obviously a good thing, but it seems unfair to talk about reducing workloads yet leave those who are overworked and on the lowest pay out of the conversation.

Around the same time as the workload challenge, the DfE launched a review of TA standards. We’re yet to hear from this, but let’s hope it offers some help to an increasingly large sector of the education workforce that has so far been left adrift.

Further help

If you're a member of our service for school leaders, why not take a look at our article on Pay scales and career progression: teaching assistants? We've also got some handy information on where it might be beneficial to Non-contact time for teaching assistants

If increasing the impact of TAs in the classroom is of interest to you, take a look at programme for The Key's one-day conference in November.

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