Drastic cuts and rocketing stress levels are becoming the norm – says Unison survey

London schools demonstration outside parliament against funding cuts
London schools demonstration outside parliament against funding cuts

DRASTIC cuts, staff restructuring and rocketing stress levels are becoming the norm in UK schools, according to a survey of school support staff published on Tuesday by Unison.

The findings – summarised in the report Lessons in Austerity – highlight the funding crisis that is having such a devastating effect on workloads and morale as pupils return to classrooms after the summer, says Unison. The 12,120 school employees who completed the survey include teaching assistants, technicians, caterers and office staff.

The negative effect of the cuts on staff workloads and morale was evident in the Unison survey responses. School employees reported feeling overwhelmed and anxious by the increased demands being made of them.

More than four in five (83%) said they have experienced stress as a result of their workload in the past five years, with one in five (20%) having needed to take time off sick as a result. The tendency for schools to embark on costly and time-consuming staff restructuring was highlighted by the report.

Unison head of education, Jon Richards said: ‘School support staff who haven’t already lost their jobs are buckling under intolerable workloads and mounting stress levels.

‘They play a vital role in keeping children safe and schools running smoothly, they shouldn’t be seen as surplus to requirements when money is tight.’

Funding issues Despite government assertions about increased money going to schools, the vast majority of survey respondents said their education establishments were facing funding problems. Nearly nine in ten (87%) said that either there had been significant cuts to staff and resources in their workplace, or that managers had warned of more cuts to come. Others said that even though no ‘official’ announcements had been made, cutbacks in their schools were noticeable.


Unison believes that staffing restructures have almost become a way of life in many schools. Overall, 76% of staff said that their school had been subjected to restructuring, or that it was planned for the near future. Over a third (38%) of respondents said there had been more than one staffing restructure in the past five years, which suggests these exercises are not working terribly well.

Staffing restructures are a problem because: • They consume a large amount of management time and money that could be better spent elsewhere. • They have more of an impact on support staff than on teaching staff, and lead to confusion over responsibilities and duties. • The breaks in continuity affect a school’s ability to meet health and safety requirements and adequately support more vulnerable children.

• They can cause stress and anxiety amongst employees, affecting staff mental health and productivity. • Staff remaining in post following a restructure are left usually with the same amount of work, but fewer colleagues to do it – so work overload is frequently the result.

Workload issues In the Unison survey, more than 70% of staff stated that they undertook tasks that used to be performed by a colleague on more pay, with 35% saying that they did so without sufficient training. Most said this was because they were having to take on work previously done by someone who had been made redundant.

Conclusion Funding cuts, increased workloads and low morale are becoming the norm for school employees up and down the country. Support staff have borne the brunt of the cuts to educational budgets, with a high number of job losses. The employees that remain in post are often expected to take on the work of those that have left.

Reducing support staff is also having a significant knock-on effect on teachers and pupils. The workload for teachers is increasing, as they lose the staff that support them; and children with special educational needs and disabilities, who rely heavily on support staff, are losing out on vital help.

Excerpts from interviews with school support staff • Emma was an administrative assistant in a primary school who was constantly expected to do the work of a more senior colleague who had been made redundant. Her manager said that it was in her job description, despite this not being the case, and the extra work was still expected of her. She has now left education.

• Steve says: ‘My job description bears no comparison to what I do now.

‘I’ve gone from a handyman to taking on many of the roles previously the job of the bursar, including managing 11 facilities staff. ‘I am paid the same wage (less than £20,000) as before and it’s a case of “do everything or you’re sacked – it’s for the benefit of the school”.’

• Caroline, a higher level teaching assistant, told Unison she was constantly moved from ‘pillar to post’, and unable to work to the best of her ability. • Kate, a teaching assistant in a special school, said: ‘If a teacher is absent then a teaching assistant is asked to cover.

‘If a lunchtime supervisor is absent then a teaching assistant is asked to cover.

‘Teaching assistants are asked to put breakfast tables out because the head does not want to pay cleaning staff to do it. ‘Morale is falling and senior managers are not supportive.’

• Claire is a higher level teaching assistant who used to spend most of her time working with small groups of children who needed extra help. Now, she is spending the majority of her time helping prepare for classes, although formerly ‘this would have been done by a teacher who left and was not replaced’.

• Sarah, a learning mentor at a secondary school, has seen the pastoral team halved.

This means the school is unable ‘to follow its own behaviour policy, late detentions are not staffed so many pupils don’t turn up to them’. She says a new staff member appointed for safeguarding work has not received relevant training.

The designated teacher for looked-after children does not have time to train staff about these issues so ‘it’s the most vulnerable children feeling the impact of cuts’. A learning support administrative assistant who has recently been appointed is becoming the main point of contact for special needs students. Because of this, the woman has been sent on an advanced safeguarding course, which Sarah says is ‘far beyond her remit’.

• Jake, a teaching assistant, said: ‘Teaching assistants are increasingly being asked to get involved with recording data for the progression of the children in their groups, whereas before we we’d feed this back to the teacher. ‘This makes you feel extremely responsible for that child’s education, rather than supporting the pupil with guidance from the teacher, as happened in the past.

‘If a teaching assistant wishes to progress to a higher level or take a teaching degree, then the extra responsibilities might be acceptable. ‘But overall a person becomes a teaching assistant to support in the school environment, not be a teacher on the cheap.’

• Meanwhile, commenting on the recent Tory government announcement of 53 new ‘free schools’ and one ‘UTC’ (university technical college) on Tuesday, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: ‘The government is continuing to use the free school programme as its sole approach to creating new school places in England when we know that it is failing to deliver the right number of places, in the right locations and in the phase of education in which new places are needed.

‘The Local Government Association (LGA) recently warned that England would face a severe shortage of secondary school places within the next five years. ‘The LGA has calculated that more than half the local authorities in England will be unable to meet demand and expect a shortfall of 134,000 places.

‘The NEU agrees with the LGA that councils should be allowed to open new maintained schools and direct academies to expand where they have capacity. ‘This situation is now urgent and the government must end its obsession with free schools and provide the mechanism by which local authorities can fulfil their responsibilities to families to ensure all children and young people have access to a good local school within their locality.’