Cuts to school support staff could leave vulnerable children at risk, says UNISON Eastern

School support staff regularly go home worried about pupils’ welfare, safety and emotional state after discussing issues such as grooming, gangs, domestic violence, bullying, loneliness, and sexual abuse with them, according to a survey released by UNISON today.

The research suggests that across the east of England more than a quarter (28%) of school support staff involved in children’s welfare go home worried every day having spoken to pupils about the issues that trouble them both inside and outside of school.

Almost nine in 10 (87%) support staff told UNISON they’d gone home worried about pupils after talking to them. Issues of concern can range from parents splitting up, family bereavement, self-harm, and sibling rivalry, to family members falling ill, the misuse of alcohol or drugs at home, and having a parent in prison.

UNISON surveyed more than 3,000 school support staff involved in children’s welfare (including teaching assistants, learning mentors and welfare officers) across the UK, with the report released today to coincide with Stars in our schools day, UNISON’s annual celebration of non-teaching staff and the valuable work they do.

In the east of England, support staff said that they felt the contributions they made in school helped pupils to feel safer (84%), and supported their learning in the classroom (94%). Three in five (61%) also said they thought their work helped pupils feel less isolated, and two fifths (43%) that it improved their attendance.

Their work with children also meant improved behaviour in the classroom – cited by 81% of support staff who responded – and decreased workloads for teachers (75%).

Yet, despite the obvious benefits that support staff involved in children’s welfare can bring to distressed pupils and the smooth running of schools, 30% reported that their schools had made cuts to staff carrying out pastoral roles over the past year.

Cutbacks to other parts of public services are also being felt in schools. Despite needing to involve social services, mental health services and even the police to support student welfare, more than two-fifths (41%) had noticed a decrease in the availability of support services beyond school.

Despite the range and depth of issues experienced by pupils, more than half (54%) of the school support staff who responded in eastern England said they didn’t have the time, space or privacy to talk to children. This is despite nine in 10 regularly working unpaid overtime, with 5% doing more than eight hours a week.

Commenting on the results, UNISON Eastern head of education Tracey Sparkes said: “Despite the huge pressures they are under, support staff are proving time and again that they’re real stars in our schools.

“It’s important that we take the opportunity to celebrate their huge contribution to keeping our schools running and supporting children through tough times.
“Having the right type of emotional support in place at the right time ensures problems don’t escalate into crises.

“But cuts pose a huge risk to schools and pupils. The government must properly fund schools so there’s always the time and space for children to feel listened to and helped.”

“Across the east of England today, and up and down the country, schools will hold Stars in Our Schools events including breakfasts, award ceremonies, and afternoon teas to celebrate the invaluable work of their support staff.”

UNISON represents over 250,000 school support staff in the UK – caretakers, janitors, cleaners, school cooks, catering assistants, lunchtime supervisors, administrative and finance staff, data managers, examinations staff, school business managers, teaching assistants, classroom assistants, cover supervisors, nursery nurses, library assistants, librarians, network managers, ICT technicians, food technicians, science technicians, design and technology technicians, attendance officers, family support advisers, learning mentors, welfare officers, and school crossing patrol officers.

Numerous events are being held across the east of England today to celebrate the work that these workers do in schools.