School support staff 'tired and stressed'

school janitor Image copyright Thinkstock

Support staff in Scotland's schools are feeling exhausted, undervalued and stressed, according to a trade union.

Unison said 1,841 jobs supporting teachers in schools had disappeared since 2010.

The posts included classroom assistants, technicians, cleaners and librarians.

The union said the cuts were impacting on the workload of the support staff who remained - with teachers and pupils also affected.

Council umbrella group Cosla said the job losses were due to cuts in government funding for local authorities.

Skipping breaks

But the Scottish government insisted councils' overall spending power to support local services was to increase by £241m in his budget.

Unison surveyed about 900 members who work in schools to get a sense of the impact of what it described as "stealth cuts".

The findings of the research included:

  • Library hours, sports and lunch or after school clubs, music tuition and cleaning have all been cut
  • The number of school librarians has been cut, making it harder to help children from deprived backgrounds;
  • Support staff who remain in schools are skipping breaks and working late to cope with increased workloads;
  • Six in 10 of those surveyed said morale was low.

The number of teachers in Scottish schools rose last year for the first time in several years, according to government figures. Councils are now obliged to maintain the ratio of teachers to students so cannot easily cut teacher numbers.

However councils - which have faced years of tight budgets - still decide how much to spend on the education service overall and can decide how many staff are needed in other roles.

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption School catering staff are among the areas to have seen cuts, according to Unison

Carol Ball, the chairwoman of Unison's education committee, said there were 7,000 more pupils attending Scottish schools now than in 2010 and that the sums "just don't add up".

She told BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland: "In terms of support staff, who obviously assist especially with children with additional support for learning needs, what we're seeing on the ground is that that support has not increased.

"The resources that are necessary to fully support these children are not there and are not in the classroom."

Ms Ball said Unison members were also not receiving adequate training.

'Special training'

She added: "We fully support the mainstreaming of children with additional support needs. However, the resources need to be there.

"The special training needs to be there and they're not receiving that training. That puts extra strain on them and we want the best possible start for our children."

Dave Watson, Unison regional manager, added: "The Scottish government has targets to reduce inequality in educational outcomes. Sadly, it is children from the most deprived backgrounds that need the access to libraries, or help from librarians. They are less likely to have computers, printers or quiet warm places to do homework. "

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) warned that the cuts would lead to an "unsustainable situation" where schools and staff were asked to achieve more with less.

"This leads to increased stress amongst staff, and the potential for associated health problems to emerge - which can then compound workload pressures due to staff illness," he said.

Analysis by Jamie McIvor, BBC Scotland education correspondent

Councils have faced tough budgets for years.

Dramatic, controversial cuts have been relatively few and far between - councils argue they have tried their best to prioritise the most important local services including education.

Instead, the impact of tight budgets has often been felt through so-called stealth cuts: cuts in budgets or staffing which may not have an immediately obvious impact, grab headlines or attract widespread public comment.

The effect of these stealth cuts tends to take two broad forms; either the remaining staff find their workload increases or work ends up not being done.

Some may use evidence of stealth cuts as an argument that councils need more money or at least more freedom to raise money.

Others may argue individual councils are taking the wrong decisions or that it may be possible to find ways of delivering services more efficiently to make up for the impact of cuts or monetary pressure.

The survey comes as councils across Scotland deliberate over their budgets for the year ahead.

A Cosla spokesman said Unison was "absolutely right" about the impact on-going cuts are having an impact on services, and warned that any further cuts to councils in the Scottish government's forthcoming budget would "lead to real job losses and have a real impact on services".

He added: "Parents should be in no doubt that losing classroom assistants, technicians, cleaners and librarians does have a detrimental impact on their child's experience at school.

"Compounding this is the impact such significant job losses has on existing staff who are having to do their best to cover.

"Despite the best efforts of councils to maintain services, the reality is that the infrastructure around a lot of service areas is really starting to crumble."

Budget pressure

Education Secretary John Swinney said the Scottish government valued the work of school support staff, and wanted to put in place the mechanisms to ensure they fulfilled all that was expected from them.

He told the BBC: "If we look at the most recent information that we have, particularly for additional support for learning staff, we've seen an increase in classroom assistants over the course of the last 12 months.

"But undoubtedly there have been pressures on local authority staff and local authority budgets as there have been right across the public sector because of the financial climate in which we're operating."

He added: "The steps we're taking are designed to, across the board, close the attainment gap and to focus the whole of the system on improving the achievements of young people within education."

Mr Swinney added: "The proper training and support has to be in place for all individuals that are supporting young people who have additional support needs.

"If we have a policy agenda which the Scottish government and local authorities are signed up to, which is about getting it right for every child, we have to make sure that in every single circumstance the staff that we're expecting to provide that support are equipped with the knowledge and the experience and the techniques to ensure that young people can be properly supported.

"I think that's a very substantial issue that comes out of this survey that has to be taken seriously by local authorities."