Learning support staff based in schools and colleges in Wales will be registered with the EWC on 1st April. The EWC tell us they expect around 28,000 new registrants from April, a fair proportion of whom will belong to our union.
It is UNISON’s view that support staff have waited far too long for the recognition they so rightly deserve for the role(s) they play in our young people’s education. Not just ‘learning’ support staff either – most students, staff and parents know that education is a whole team effort - from the person who greets you at the door, to the caretakers, the catering staff, the technical staff, lunch time supervisers, the office staff, the people who run the breakfast club, library staff and the many other bespoke roles that keep a school or college running.
Let’s focus for now on those who will be registered on 1st April – learning support staff. The proliferation of learning support staff is as much about policy drivers, such as pupil ratios and Additional Learning Needs support, as alleviating teacher workload, and certainly not a spontaneous phenomenon that happened overnight. Nor can it be easily reversed (which we wouldn’t want anyway).
Whilst there have been classroom based support staff in schools for many years, the 2003 workload agreement in England and Wales designed to relieve teacher workload led to widespread deployment of learning support roles in the classroom ranging from high level HLTA support, administrative support, directed pupil support, and 1-2-1 interventions aimed at improving attainment and supporting those with additional learning needs. In Wales, the introduction of the Foundation Phase in 2008 also bolstered the need for increased numbers of learning support staff to work alongside teachers with our 3-7 year olds.
The registration of learning support roles with the EWC (in line with teachers and lecturers) confirms their place in, and therefore their necessity to, the education system in Wales.
We know from our survey of school leaders, (The Evident Value of Teaching Assistants, UNISON 2013), that almost 100% of respondents said they value the relationship of teaching assistants with pupils. Many offered additional commentary on areas that they felt TAs were especially of value which includes, but is not limited to the following: their skills and expertise, allowing greater curriculum choice, continuity across transition points, local knowledge, specialist knowledge of SEN, support for the most vulnerable, the ability to run interventions and report back to teaching staff.
So what do our members think about professional registration?
Over the past few months, we’ve had thousands of conversations with our learning support members to get them ready for registration. This intensive activity consolidates the work done over the last three years whilst proposals have been going through consultation with Welsh Government to help form the union’s response to professional registration.
The overall reaction is positive, with a healthy degree of questioning and a few “what ifs...”?
Professional registration brings with it recognition of the crucial roles performed by 28,000 learning support staff in Welsh education settings. This confirms what we’ve been saying for a long time which is that the support staff workforce has undergone a very definite professionalisation, so it makes sense to consider regulating this workforce under a professional body. It should lead to better training and development as well as more clarity and consistency in the profession.
The development of the Professional Learning Passport (PLP) is a positive first step on the CPD front, but we would also expect the EWC to pay attention to the appropriate deployment of support staff to ensure that development expectations stay consistent with job profiles. This is much trickier to do with hundreds of job titles, less clear expectations and the potential for a Teaching Assistant level 2 job, for instance, to attract 22 different rates of pay across Wales.
Registration also brings increased risk and responsibility. For the first time learning support staff will be governed by a code of conduct, something new to many. They will also be accountable as professionals for their practice. Our members agree that in order for this to be meaningful, there must be standards in place to enable benchmarking across leaning support roles.
Some also ask what the fee is for – ‘Is it just to discipline us if things go wrong’? As the lowest paid registrants, mainly paid term time only, UNISON has always been against levying a fee for the registration of learning support workers and we continue to argue that this should be funded.
Registration with the EWC should bring about equal status and respect for the jobs that all practitioners do to support and enable learning. Registration mustn’t become an excuse to view support staff as “teachers on the cheap”.
Instead we need to strengthen the distinction between learning support and teaching so that everyone acknowledges and respects the different types of professions operating in the school or college team. When talking to staff, in schools particularly, about deployment issues we find it helpful to draw comparisons between the school environment and the transitions that have taken place in the medical profession. Take doctors and nursing staff for instance who, like teaching and support staff, perform different functions but always towards the same aim of delivering the best care for the patient. Everyone understands the differences in their roles, and both are valued in their own right. We know this isn’t always the case in education. So just as nursing has undergone its own professionalisation - and with it better pay, qualifications, professional standards and consistency - we hold out hope that this is the beginning of a similar path for Learning Support Staff in Wales.
UNISON will continue our campaigning efforts to ensure learning support workers get the fair recognition they deserve with decent training, a uniform career structure and fair pay.
Jess Turner is the UNISON Cymru Wales Lead Organiser for Schools. Jess has worked for the public service union UNISON as a Regional Organiser since 2008 covering a range of sectors including health, local government, schools, colleges and HE. She graduated from University of Wales Swansea in 2002 and later went on to obtain a PGCE (PCET) whilst employed as an adult learning project manager for Swansea Council . Jess has previously worked for, and later served as a Governor for the Workers Educational Association south Wales prior to it becoming WEA Cymru. Jess sits on the Education Group of Workforce Partnership Council and is a passionate advocate for the vital work of support staff in schools, championing the need for them to receive decent training, a uniform career structure and fair pay.