Support staff struggling to maintain standards for pupils because of cuts, says UNISON report

Lack of time, resources and heavy workloads mean support staff are struggling to maintain standards for pupils in Scotland. That is the finding of a wide ranging UNISON report released today (Monday 16 January 2017)

In probably one of the biggest surveys of school support staff ever in Scotland, staff report heavier workloads, jobs cuts, lack of educational supplies, and dirtier schools. This is while pupil numbers and education support needs are increasing.

There are 6707 more pupils since 2010 in Scottish schools, but there 1841 less support staff and 1389 less teachers. This report confirms the enormous stress this puts on support staff.

54 per cent of support staff say budgets have been cut, 40 per cent carry out unpaid work to meet workloads, 60 per cent say morale is low, and 80 per cent say workloads are heavier. And services like school libraries are closing. Many report stress from the lack of training and support they receive for the tasks they are asked to carry out – like administering medicines or caring for pupils with challenging behaviour.

The report reveals a dedicated workforce committed to supporting children to reach their potential. Staff skip breaks and work late to meet their pupil’s needs. But they are exhausted, undervalued and under enormous pressure.

Those who took part in survey include classroom assistants, pupil support workers, school administrative and clerical staff as well as cleaning staff, janitors, technicians, catering staff, librarians and library assistants, and home-link workers. The vast majority of those who responded were long term staff who can compare schools now to pre-austerity.

Carol Ball, chair of UNISON education committee said, ‘Cutting hours and not replacing staff means job losses are less likely to get noticed outside school. But these cuts still damage our children’s education inside school. Staff try to maintain a high quality service to give children the best start in life.  But this is enormously difficult when schools are short of supplies and staff workloads continue to increase; and libraries, sports lunch and afterschool clubs and music tuition have been cut. And this hurts the poorest kids the most’

Dave Watson UNISON regional manager said, “The Scottish government has targets to reduce inequality in educational outcomes. Sadly, it is children from the most deprived backgrounds that need the access to libraries, or help from librarians. They are less likely to have computers, printers or quiet warm places to do homework. If school libraries have limited opening hours and do not have qualified staff then young people will have less access to information and less support to find the information even when it is open. Similarly how will the Scottish government improving science, technology, engineering and maths education (STEM) with less technicians in our schools to support this type of learning? It takes a whole team to deliver education”

Support staff anxiety when carrying out personal care and medical interventions

The report also highlights a high level of anxiety from classroom assistants who are expected to undertake a range of personal care and medical interventions including: checking blood sugar, insulin injections, catheterisation, tube feeding, and dealing with tracheotomy tubes – all carry high degrees of risk. Many staff feel they have not been given adequate training and risk assessment that these tasks involve. Members also report increased levels of challenging behaviour – and in some cases, violence – in schools.

Carol said, “Enabling children with disabilities to participate in mainstream education is something that we fully support. It is their fundamental human right. But enabling this requires more than warm words and Act of Parliament, we need adequate resources and staff need proper training and qualifictions to support pupils individual needs – whether that is for personal care medical procedures or behaviour.”


UNISON is the public services union and we are the biggest trade union in Scotland. We represent support staff in Scottish schools.

Scottish government figures show that in 2010 there were 673,133 pupils in Scottish schools, by 2015 there were 679,840: an increase of 6,707 pupils. In 2010, there were 49,784 teachers in Scottish schools and in 2015 this had reduced to 48,395 so 1,389 less teachers. Teacher numbers are relatively protected in comparison to other workers in schools. The total for “other staff” in 2010 was 19,330 and in 2015 was 17,489 – 1,841 fewer support staff working in our schools. This is a bigger cut from a substantially smaller workforce. Within that: library staff numbers in secondary schools have been reduced from 334 down to 249; there are 251 fewer technicians (941 in 2015 when there were 1,192 in 2010) and admin and clerical staff numbers have dropped by 273 (1,569 down from 1,842).

Just over 90% of those who responded to our survey identified as female. Respondents work in 25 different local authorities. The vast majority had been in post for 11 years or more.

Almost 80% of respondents indicated that their workload is getting heavier. 54% stated that budgets had been cut and 27% stated that budgets cuts had been “severe”. Only 20% of those who responded to our survey said there had been no job losses in their school. Only 2% of respondents felt that their school budgets had increased at any point in the last five years.

This year 16% stated that budgets had stayed the same, members’ responses show us that it is not just about actual job losses – many may still be in a job but they have had their hours cut. Pressure to get work done means they are having to stay late and skip breaks.

Pupils exhibit challenging behaviour for a range of reasons. Some have with complex disabilities and mental health problems, others are just reacting to challenging things in their personal lives. Getting it Right for Every Child requires that they get the right support. And UNISON wholeheartedly support GIRFEC. But it requires resources, staff and appropriate training and support for staff to ensure they are able to deal with behaviours in a suitable manner. Not finding the lowest-paid member of staff in the building and telling them to keep an eye on them.

UNISON Contacts

Carol Ball, chair of eductaion issues group  07803 952 263

Dave Watson, head of policy and campaigns,  07958 122 409

Danny Phillips, communications officer, 07944 664 110