Headteachers fear losing increasingly vital teaching assistants as cost-of-living pressures bite

Classroom

Teaching assistants are still filling the gaps left by specialist staff ​during the pandemic and providing vital emotional support to students and parents, ​according to a UNISON-commissioned report

  • 08 September 2022
  • 10 min read

The From Covid to the Cost of Living report, conducted by University of Portsmouth researchers, provides a snapshot of the way Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the role of teaching assistants.  

The report, published today (Thursday), also captures headteachers’ concerns that chronic low pay is driving more teaching assistants out of classrooms to better paid, less stressful jobs in other parts of the economy.  

The report challenges Liz Truss’ government to do more to acknowledge, support, reward and train teaching assistants whose responsibilities and workloads have soared as schools struggle to help pupils catch-up in the wake of the pandemic. 

For the research, academics from the University of Portsmouth’s Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit interviewed teaching assistants, teachers and school leaders at five primary schools in England. They found that teaching assistants were delivering a range of vital services and informal support to families, on top of their normal duties.   

The report describes, for example, how teaching assistants regularly help parents complete benefit application forms, while others have helped set up food and clothing banks for families in financial difficulty. 

Researchers also heard that teaching assistants calling parents during the pandemic to check how they were coping, were often greeted by distraught parents struggling with the stress of the lockdowns and isolation.

Teaching assistants took on specialist roles – such as delivering speech and language therapy – when expert staff couldn’t go into schools due to the lockdowns. Despite restrictions being scrapped, teaching assistants continue to carry out these roles, as demand for specialist staff outstripped supply when schools reopened. 

The report also charts the devastating impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on teaching assistants and makes the case for staff to receive decent pay.  

Support staff mentioned the high cost of fuel as a particular strain on their finances, to such an extent some said they could no longer afford to drive to work.

Headteachers are aware of the financial hit teaching assistants are taking and the impact on schools if staff continue to leave, says the report. One headteacher said they had been constantly advertising for teaching assistants since the start of the year but had only been able to fill one out of eight positions.  

To halt the exodus of teaching assistants, the report recommends ministers take an urgent look at better rewarding teaching assistants.  

The government must also invest in the workforce by creating opportunities for professional development that build on the skills staff already possess and the new responsibilities taken on since Covid struck, says the report. 

Schools are facing many challenges, but the consequence of the loss of teaching assistants is the most catastrophic

Dr Rob Webster, University of Portsmouth researcher

University of Portsmouth researcher Dr Rob Webster, who co-authored the report with Dr Sophie Hall, said: “Schools are facing many challenges, but the consequence of the loss of teaching assistants is the most catastrophic. 

“Without these staff, schools will struggle to provide adequate support to children with additional needs. Teachers’ workloads will also skyrocket, driving yet more from the profession and deterring others from joining. 

“The report makes it clear that while there are things schools can do to boost staff morale, a properly funded effort to support and retain teaching assistants is urgently needed.” 

UNISON head of education Mike Short said: “Teaching assistants stepped-up during the pandemic and repeatedly proved their worth, as they were doing long before the crisis struck.  

“But chronic low pay is threatening to rob classrooms of dedicated, experienced staff, just when schools need them most.   

“The report highlights the value headteachers place on teaching assistants, and the important role training plays in boosting skills, status and pay.”