School support staff are dipping into their own pockets to help pay for food, stationery and uniforms for needy pupils, while skipping meals and taking on multiple jobs to pay their own bills, a union survey has found.
The poll by Unison revealed that teaching assistants (TA), catering and cleaning workers, librarians and sports coaches, who are among the lowest-paid workers in the sector, are struggling to pay their own bills, but still stepping up to support pupils.
Nearly all the 6,700 respondents (98%) to the UK-wide survey said they were worried their pay would not cover spiraling living costs, yet more than a third (35%) said they had helped pay for food or packed lunches for pupils.
More than one in five (23%) have used their own money to pay for books, pens and pencils for their students, while 30% have helped struggling families with the cost of school uniforms.
One in eight school support staff have themselves had to use food banks in the past year and may need to turn to them again, or are relying on family for help. More than a quarter have taken second or third jobs to make ends meet – including work in security, supermarkets, delivery driving, hospitality, beauty, tuition, cleaning and care.
Almost half said they were actively seeking better-paid work elsewhere – often in retail – because they cannot make ends meet on their current salary, Unison said. Recruitment websites currently advertise TA jobs at around £80-£100 a day in London.
More than two in five of those who took part in the survey had borrowed money in the past year to help with family finances. Others have tried to keep bills down by buying extra blankets (55%), heating a single room (31%), or not using heating at all despite needing it for health reasons (30%). Meanwhile 8% were using public spaces to keep warm and avoid using their own heating.
The survey highlights a number of cases, including that of Geoff (not his real name), who supports children with special educational needs and has worked in schools for more than 20 years.
They said: “I work two jobs to make ends meet and have one day off a month. I can’t afford to put the heating on. Instead I bought an electric blanket that costs a penny an hour to keep me warm. There’s no incentive to do this job apart from the love of education and the pupils.”
Sue (again, not her real name) has been a teaching assistant for 10 years and is thinking of leaving the sector. “I have a three-year-old and I’m struggling to pay for childcare. We live with my parents because we’re trying to buy a house, but our mortgage offer was withdrawn because we couldn’t afford the higher payments. I’m considering taking another job or quitting work altogether.”
Unison’s head of education, Mike Short, said: “Even though education workers are experiencing tough times themselves, they’re still helping less fortunate pupils and their families. That speaks volumes about their generosity and dedication, but it should never have come to this. The government should be hanging its head in shame.”
The poll was carried out from 20 October to 1 November, with the majority of responses from staff working in primary schools (59%), followed by secondary schools (24%), special schools (11%), nurseries (5%) and pupil referral units (1%).
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are incredibly grateful for the work of all support staff in education and understand the pressures many are facing at the moment due to the challenges of recession and high inflation.
“While decisions about pay are for individual schools, the core schools budget will be boosted by £2bn in each of the next two years, thanks to the chancellor’s autumn statement. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has already highlighted the uplift will allow school spending to return to at least 2010 levels in real terms – the highest spending year in history – meaning in real terms we will be putting more into schools than ever before.”