At the EdExec LIVE South conference this week in my session on the ‘Joys of being a School Business Manager’ I declared that in the next academic year I plan to focus on something that has been part of life since I started in the role, but that I have, so far, done very little to try to resolve…the Support Staff/Teaching Staff gap.
Announcing it so publicly to a room of SBLs might not have been the best idea I’ve ever had because straight after the session a member of the audience approached me and enthusiastically asked exactly how was I going to do that?
I had to admit that it was still an early germ of an idea rather than a fully formed plan (more a Baldrick than an A-Team kind of plan) but that I’d been encouraged by a conversation with some Teacher colleagues who felt that the perceived gap was a barrier to a successful whole-school wellbeing initiative.
But since the event my thoughts have kept returning to the question. How am I going to improve this at my school and is it possible to come up with a model that other schools could use?
I should, at this point, manage your expectations in that I’m not expecting to find a Eureka answer in this first blog on the subject! Rather that it’s the start of a long road, an extensive conversation and an interesting debate that will, most likely take place over the whole year. I fully accept that there is not going to be a quick fix!
I guess the first step on the road to change is to think about why the gap is there. There are some obvious answers but I’m beginning to wonder if we should look at a wider picture?
- Different contracts – this inevitably means that Support staff work different hours to Teaching staff making it, for example, problematic to arrange whole school events that everyone can get to and be involved.
- Varied roles – A member of a school’s Support staff can range from a full time member of the SLT, to one who spends few hours a week cleaning. Some who are in the classroom, and some who never see a student. It’s clear that all staff (Leadership, Teaching and Support) are important to the overall operations of a school, but I’m reminded of George Orwell’s Animal Farm… “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
- Part time hours – Support staff often don’t work the whole school day and are usually term time only. Is there a perception that part time equals lower status?
- Qualifications – Staff qualifications are not always obvious. I’ve known some very highly qualified individuals who enjoy working locally, part time and flexibly, at something they feel is worthwhile. (Am I talking about Teaching or Support in that sentence? It could be either)
- The Teaching Profession – Has there been an erosion of the professional status of the Teacher in the UK, and has that had a knock-on impact on the Teacher/Support relationship? Would supporting a rebuild in the professional status of the Teacher result in an improvement of the perceived gap? (or widen it further?)
- Our own attitudes – I sometimes maintain that if I refuse to recognise a difference between you and me, us and them, Teachers and Support staff, then it won’t actually be there. Is it really that simple?
My first step has got to be to try to discover “How bad is it really?” We all have uncomfortable anecdotes of insensitive comments, overlooked colleagues, unequal treatment and frustrating displays of superiority. Do these anecdotes add up into a negativity that we’ve just never been able to shake off? Do some of our work colleagues really feel superior or are they just worn down to a point of losing patience with someone who “can’t possibly understand how I feel”? Do Support staff widen the gap themselves by not making themselves available for staff meetings, not participating in staff events, consultations and improvement initiatives? Do I, as a leader of Support staff, widen the gap by not communicating effectively to my Support colleagues?
Should we actually accept that those at the front of the classroom need extra protection, consideration and support, and that they are, in the grand scheme of things, more important to school operations than a Technician, TA or Administrator? And if we accept this, does this change the way we feel about the gap?
This leads me, inevitably, to a survey. I’m guessing that I will need my Jean Grey powers of persuasion to convince The Boss that this is a good idea but I think it makes sense to ask questions first, to inform an action plan for next year.
Here are my proposed questions in a completely anonymous survey;
I have a Teaching Contract/Support Contract at this school (delete as appropriate)
Then, with answers of ‘Strongly Agree’, ‘Agree’, ‘Disagree’, ‘Strongly Disagree’
- I believe all staff at my school contribute to teaching, learning and care of students.
- I believe staff at this school always treat Teaching and Support staff equally.
- I would like to see more collaborative working and joint initiatives that include both Teaching and Support staff at this school.
- I think Support staff should have their own events, meetings and initiatives, leaving INSET and staff meetings to focus on Teaching staff.
- I believe part time staff should be treated differently to full time staff.
- I believe wellbeing initiatives should be different for Support staff and Teaching staff.
- When I want to communicate to staff, I always remember to include Support staff.
- I believe any gap between Teaching and Support staff is detrimental to the education of our students.
- I think Classroom Teachers are the most important staff in any school.
- I believe Support staff could do more to involve themselves in the life of this school.
I would be very interested to know your thoughts on this and the balance in my questions.
Please do feel free to use the survey in your school as consolidated results would provide for deeper analysis.
I’ll let you know how I get on and we can look at results and start thinking about an action plan.