Many schools are facing cuts due to lack of funding, rising inflation and huge energy costs. The largest proportion of school budgets is spent on staff: teachers, teaching support staff, nursery nurses, admin and caretakers. All are essential to maintianing the quality of education and the smooth running of the school.
In recent years teaching support staff, despite low wages, have become more professionalised, training for intervention projects to support children who have fallen behind, assisting childen with special needs or disability, and working with children with English as an additional language. They have become vital to the educational progress of children and especially their wellbeing.
These staff are often women working several jobs to make ends meet and in urban areas are from ethnic minorities.
When Lyon Park Primary School in Wembley hit budget problems they were unable to get a ‘licensed deficit’ from Brent Local Authority. The licence enables schools to plan to bring the budget into balance over several years often using natural wastage.
The immediate crisis led to a series of proposed measures that included fire and rehire (ending contracts and rehiring at lower salary or worsened conditions). Support staff are already on low wages given the importance of their jobs and may have term time only contracts. Given the role they now play it is scandalous that they now faced compulsory redundancy, reduced hours, pay cuts and a requirement to cover teacher absences.
The support staff at Lyon Park were not having it and achieved 100% support for action in an NEU strike ballot and were supported by teaching staff, parents and the local community. Brent North MP, Barry Gardiner joined the picket line and so did new NEU General Secretary, Daniel Kebede. Retired teacher union members and members of the Brent Trades Council helped leaflet the parents explaining how their children’s education would be affected if the proposed restructure was implemented.
I went to speak to the strikers whose pay has never been generous but have a fierce commitment to the children they work with. Many had been at the school for more than 30 years and working with the second or third generation of children. They are proud of their role and the way it has evolved into a professional (though often unrecognised as such) job over the past few decades.
The support staff described themselves as the backbone of the school, well known to the local community and often the first port of call for both parents and children experiencing difficulties.
They emphasised that they played a valuable part in moving the school out of the Ofsted ‘Requiring Improvement’ category and now feel betrayed.
Strikes took place over several weeks, closing the school, and Brent Council became involved in the negotiations with unions that gradually won the strikers’ demands on voluntary redundancies and the other issues with an an eventual acceptance of a ACAS negotiated offer on outstanding issues.
Many schools are facing budget challenges, dipping into reserves (if they have any) that will soon run out. The strength and solidariy shown in this strike should be an inspiration to staff in other schools facing budget cuts.
The answer is of course not cuts but increased funding from central government.