On the 17th July I opened a Westminster Hall Petitions Committee debate on Teaching Assistant's Pay
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 620264, relating to pay for teaching assistants.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Mark. Some 88,410 people signed this petition, including 178 in my constituency. The Petitions Committee received 22,506 responses to its survey, of which 84% were teaching assistants and 3% were former teaching assistants. Some 5% were teachers or headteachers, while 4% were other staff who work in a school. Some 2% were close friends or family members of a teaching assistant, and 1% were parents or guardians of a school-age child.
This issue is particularly close to my heart, because before I was elected as the Member of Parliament for Gower, I was a secondary school teacher, and I have worked with dozens of teaching assistants over my career, which also included eight years working in the north-west of England in four different schools. I know at first hand how invaluable the support that they provide is in not just running a classroom, but supporting pupils to achieve their full potential. I have also seen how their roles over the years have been dismissed and devalued—the last in the list when it comes to progression and development, but the first roles to be cut when budgets are. There is an expectation of unpaid after-hours work just to fill the gaps left by schools when they are cutting budgets and when public services are being cut more broadly, and they provide key pastoral care and wellbeing support. In far too many cases, they must provide physical support when they are neither trained nor remunerated for that work.
The petition calls for the work that teaching assistants do to be reflected in their pay. Before I discuss the issue specifically, I will tell hon. Members more about the work that teaching assistants do, as it is clear that the role they play in our schools is not fully understood. In fact, the Government’s own “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child” White Paper published in March 2022 used the phrase “teaching assistant” only twice, and it failed to mention their pay or progression. Teaching assistants take on a variety of roles, from ensuring that students have nutritious meals in school to delivering structured interventions to help pupils to progress, working and planning closely with classroom teachers and senior leaders. They play a key role in tackling inequalities and improving attainment, especially for those pupils who are falling behind, or who have additional special learning or mental health needs or behavioural issues.
Research by the Education Endowment Foundation found that teaching assistants who provide one-to-one or small, group-targeted interventions can result in pupils achieving between four and six additional months’ progress on average. A 2019 research project for the Department for Education found that senior leaders placed a high value on the capacity of teaching assistants to improve classroom management and other staff workload pressures. Those same senior managers reported that budget restraints saw teaching assistants being forced to do more and more without corresponding increases in pay.
Teaching assistants are doing that work in an increasingly challenging environment. The impact of the pandemic is still being felt strongly in schools and across communities, with the crisis in children’s mental health and wellbeing being one of the starkest reminders to us all. There has been a 77% rise in the number of children needing specialist treatment for a severe mental health crisis from April to October 2021, compared with April to October 2019; in that context, the care and attention provided by teaching assistants is more vital than ever before.
Research by the University of Portsmouth, commissioned by Unison, found that the covid period “remade” the teaching assistant role, and that the changes are likely to be long lasting. The role has become even more varied, intense and emotionally demanding, with more support being given to parents and carers, and more backfilling for specialist staff; add to that the fact that there is a desperate lack of places in specialist schools, and the role of a teaching assistant has become more and more complex. There are also many parents who wish for their child to have mainstream education and not be put in a specialist educational environment. Therefore, the role of a teaching assistant, as I have seen at first hand, is key for inclusivity in all classrooms and schools across the United Kingdom.
A Unison survey found that many teaching assistants were expected to provide medical as well as educational support. Twenty seven per cent reported providing physical therapy, 65% reported supporting pupils with toileting and soiling incidents—and that was not just in primary schools—and 7% were providing assistance with both catheters and colostomy bags. While they provide that essential support, the survey found that 48% of teaching assistants do not feel valued as a member of staff by their school. There is a real concern about the experiences of teaching assistants that we cannot ignore.
A study by the University of Roehampton found that teaching assistants were kicked, punched and spat at by pupils, with one interviewee experiencing a spinal injury and forced to take early retirement; that is not the first such case that I have heard of throughout my career. Some teaching assistants reported that violent students were given lesser sanctions for attacking them than they would receive for attacking teachers or senior managers. The prevalence of physical violence against teaching assistants, many of whom are women, risks normalising violence against women to children who are present, as well as being entirely unacceptable to classroom staff. One teaching assistant responding to the Committee’s survey said:
“The amount of children coming into mainstream schools with behavioural problems is increasing and some are very violent which is hard to cope with physically and mentally. It also has an impact on the rest of the children in the class as it disrupts their learning, and they also get very distressed. It falls on TAs to work with these children without any training. It’s unfair on staff and children as there is no support for us.”
Working in such conditions, it cannot be surprising that nearly 50% of those surveyed by Unison are actively looking for better paid work. I know from my own experience that many of the women I worked with who were teaching assistants moved on to other work or had numerous jobs. Teaching assistants are some of the lowest paid public sector workers, sitting at the bottom of local government pay scales. The majority of local authorities use the National Joint Council pay spine, and although academy trusts are not obligated to use that scale, some do. The bottom end of the NJC pay spine is lower than the living wage. The mean salary of full-time and part-time teaching assistants in state-funded schools in England from 2020 to 2021 was only £19,000. One respondent to the Committee’s survey highlighted the reality of the pay for teaching assistants:
“Poor pay is now a real concern. Due to my hours being term time only and this is pro rata over the year. I actually only bring home around £14k which is a very poor salary in today’s situation.”
The average take-home salary for a teaching assistant is £14,211.
It is an issue that depends on the person’s sex. Many women who are mothers find that working as a teaching assistant will fit in with their children and be convenient. But we do not want it to be a job of convenience; it has to be a job with pay progression that also offers the right work environment. As I said, 92% of teaching assistants are women, and the chronic undervaluing of what is perceived as women’s work has created a situation where key workers find themselves below the poverty line. Is it any wonder that, along with nearly half of teaching assistants looking for new roles with better pay, 28% are having to take on second or third jobs to make ends meet, and 43% have had to borrow money from family?
The impact of low pay is amplified by the cost of living crisis, particularly where we find ourselves today. In response to a 2022 survey by the GMB, one teaching assistant said:
“It is very stressful trying to manage bills and food costs. We now wear extra layers and use hot water bottles as we are extremely worried about finding the money to pay the bills and not get into debt.”
Members of the GMB report that they regularly pay for essential items such as food and toilet paper for their schools and pupils out of their own pockets. I saw that happening in all my teaching jobs—before covid and before I was in this place.
Only 4% of respondents to the survey agreed with the statement “my pay is keeping up with the cost of living,” because it is not. Sixty-six per cent said that they could not afford necessities for themselves each month, and 73% said they could not afford necessities for their families. This response from one teaching assistant really sums up the issue:
“We work at home unpaid to prepare resources, do research and training. We often stay late and arrive early also unpaid. I would like our pay to reflect the role we do. I am a mother of three. Myself and my husband work full time... I eat less to feed my children, I go without clothes, haircuts and non-essentials to make sure my children have all they need.”
Low wages do not only impact current teaching assistants. The disparity between these wages and other comparable work means that schools are struggling to attract and retain new teaching assistants. The Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit has warned that there is a “new emergency over TA recruitment and retention”, which the Minister will be aware of. In 2020, it was reported that vacancy rates were higher for teaching assistants than for any other occupation, and 90% of teaching assistants who responded to the Committee’s survey said that they had considered leaving the role. One respondent, who is a headteacher, said:
“Teaching assistants are one of the most important resources in my school. I am losing highly skilled, trained, experienced TAs who are leaving to take up posts in supermarkets and other work which is paid better.”
That is not to undermine the value of retail work, but it does highlight the impact of low wages on retaining—as another respondent said—“amazing teaching assistants”.
Recent research by SchoolDash found that support staff vacancies are up by 85% compared with before the pandemic. Numerous other employers, from supermarkets to warehouses, are now offering variations on term-time only contracts in a direct attempt to recruit school support staff on more competitive terms than schools can offer. It should not be a competition. In addition to low pay, school support staff are cut off from career development opportunities as they are ineligible for careers programmes, scholarships and the new national professional qualifications, which currently apply only to teachers, school leaders and special educational needs co-ordinators.
The decisions we make about our education system should be driven by what is best for pupils, and teaching assistants have an enormous positive impact on their attainment and experience. Teaching assistants are proven to improve classroom behaviour, which is especially true for children who are all too often let down by mainstream education. Teaching assistants are reported to be effective at lowering exclusion rates for particular groups where they are often deployed to provide personal learning support, including pupils identified with special educational needs and disabilities, those with poor mental health, and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. Despite that, teaching assistants are not eligible for the SEN allowance afforded to teachers. According to the Department for Education’s own review of academic evidence, 91% of primary school teachers and 75% of secondary school teachers were very or fairly confident about the positive impact of support staff on pupils’ learning, and other studies have found that teaching assistants can have a positive effect on children in their care.
Our schooling system is severely underfunded, with real-terms pay cuts, the closing of services and crumbling buildings; this is what we have to show for a decade of under-investment in the future of our children. In the long term, our education system needs a radical new approach to funding, but as a first step towards that much-needed reform I can think of no better place to start than improving the salary and recognition of teaching assistants.
I close my remarks with a quote from a teacher in response to the Committee’s survey:
“[Teaching assistants] are all too often the only reason a student will stay in school. Their nurturing nature and patience is priceless, their ability to break down work so a student can understand is phenomenal. Pay them what they deserve!”
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