School support staff play a vital role in education – so why are they on poverty pay?

Too often these positions are not treated as ‘proper jobs'


With around one in five workers paid below the living wage, and the current government having done little to tackle the low wage economy, it genuinely matters for low paid workers which party gets in to government.

As manifestos reach their final drafts, it is worth looking to campaigning organisations – from charities and pressure groups to trade unions – to see what they are saying their members need and what Labour can do to address issues such as low pay.

The GMB Southern Region recently published their manifesto for school support staff and called for recognition of the work this valuable group play in ensuring that every child gets the best start in life.

During his time as secretary of state for education, Michael Gove proposed phasing out teaching assistants despite leading educational charities being clear that they play an important role in schools.

Significant numbers of Labour Party members – councillors, activists and parents – are active in schools and on school governing bodies. In the absence of legislation to make this happen, we can all make a difference by pushing for those often working with the most vulnerable children to be paid at least a living wage.

With our local government base stronger than it has been for many years, we can also push for a commitment from Labour-run local authorities to extend the living wage to schools. It simply isn’t good enough to use the cuts argument to justify not paying people enough to live on and, like care workers, all too many school support staff don’t get enough to get by.

Labour councils have led the way on introducing the living wage; however, localised agreements are creating a postcode lottery in relation to pay and conditions. The shadow secretary of state, Tristram Hunt MP, has acknowledged the contribution school support staff make and recently pledged to reintroduce the School Support Staff Negotiating Body that Labour established in 2009.

School support staff make up over a quarter of the workforce in schools, and with teaching unions still able to yield some clout through collective bargaining, a negotiating body would go some way to making pay and conditions less of a postcode lottery.

Addressing the issue of low pay in schools for this group of workers is vital. The GMB Manifesto for School Support Staff goes further and calls for school support staff – in all state funded schools – to be paid at least the living wage.

With poverty pay and inequality growing, and the state subsidising low pay through in-work benefits, the case for state funded jobs to pay enough to live on is stronger than ever.

The GMB Manifesto for Support Staff also advocates continuing professional development for support staff and a recognised career path highlighting the fact that, as with teaching assistants, all too often jobs that are largely held by women (93 per cent) and frequently held as part time positions (87 per cent) still aren’t always treated as ‘proper jobs’. These are proper jobs and those in these roles deserve to be treated properly.

In a welcome move, the GMB Manifesto for School Support Staff also covers school meals – delivered by school meals staff – and calls for an extension of universal free school meals to all primary school children, as well as increased provision of breakfast clubs.

It goes without saying that children stand a much better chance of flourishing in their education when they are provided with adequate food. From tackling hunger, to addressing the stigma still attached to free school meals and putting up to £500 per child back in to the pockets of families, these are policies pioneered by Labour local authorities such as Islington, Southwark, Durham, Newham and Hull. Labour has committed to ensuring no child is too hungry to learn and these policies would make sure this would happen.

With current rates of pay leaving some school support staff on the breadline themselves, we should commit to paying those who look after our children enough to feed their own. A commitment in the forthcoming Labour manifesto to paying school support staff enough to live on would be a welcome step towards this and towards a living wage.

Fiona Twycross AM is Labour’s London Assembly economic spokesperson. Follow her on Twitter

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