More than a third of UK school support staff help pupils pay for food – survey | Education

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School support staff are dipping into their own pockets to help pay for food, stationery and uniforms for needy students while skipping meals and taking on multiple jobs to pay their own bills, a union examination have found.

The investigation by Unison revealed that teaching assistants (TA), catering and cleaning workers, librarians and sports coaches, who are among the lowest paid workers in the sector, struggle to pay their own bills but still step up to support students.

Almost all of the 6,700 respondents (98%) to the UK survey said they were worried their wages would not cover rising living costs, but more than a third (35%) said they had helped pay for food or packed lunches for the students.

More than one in five (23%) have used their own money to pay for books, pens and pencils for their pupils, while 30% have helped families struggling with the cost of school uniforms.

One in eight school support workers have themselves had to use food banks in the past year and may need to turn to them again, or rely on family for help. More than a quarter have taken second or third jobs to make ends meet – including working in security, supermarkets, delivery driving, hospitality, beauty, teaching, cleaning and care.

Almost half said they were actively looking for better-paying work elsewhere – often in retail – because they can’t get by on their current wages, Unison said. Recruitment websites are currently advertising TA jobs for around £80-£100 a day in London.

More than two out of five of those who took part in the survey had borrowed money in the past year to help with the family’s finances. Others have tried to keep bills down by buying extra blankets (55%), heating a single room (31%) or not using heat at all despite needing it for health reasons (30%). Meanwhile, 8% used public spaces to keep warm and avoid using their own heat.

The investigation highlights a number of cases, including Geoff (not his real name), who supports children with special educational needs and has worked in schools for more than 20 years.

He said: “I work two jobs to make ends meet and have one day off a month. I can’t afford to put the heat on. Instead I bought an electric blanket that costs a penny an hour to keep me going warm. There is no incentive to do this job other than the love of education and the students.”

Sue (again, not her real name) has been a teaching assistant for 10 years and is considering leaving the sector. “I have a three-year-old and I’m struggling to pay for childcare. We live with my parents because we are trying to buy a house but our home loan offer was withdrawn because we couldn’t afford the higher payments. I am considering taking another job or quitting altogether.”

Unison’s head of education, Mike Short, said: “Even though education workers are experiencing hard times themselves, they are still helping less fortunate pupils and their families. It speaks volumes for their generosity and dedication, but it should never have come to this. The government should hang its head shame.”

The survey was conducted from 20 October to 1 November, with the majority of responses from staff working in primary schools (59%), followed by secondary schools (24%), special schools (11%), nurseries (5%) and pupil referral units (1 %).

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We are incredibly grateful for the work of all education support staff and understand the pressures many are currently facing due to the challenges of recession and high inflation.

“While decisions on pay are for individual schools, core schools’ budgets will be boosted by £2bn in each of the next two years, thanks to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has already highlighted that the increase will enable school spending to reverse back to at least 2010 levels in real terms – the highest spending year on record – which means we will actually be putting more into schools than ever before.”

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