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“Education Support Personnel: Shining light on the invisible workforce”, by Philippa Butler.

Education Support Personnel (ESP) are a vital part of the education workforce. They help to do all the background tasks and hidden duties that ensure that teachers can teach and students can learn. Together with teachers and school leaders, ESP are responsible for creating and sustaining a school culture where learning can take place.

ESP are employed in schools and educational institutions around the world, yet not much is known about who is employed as an ESP, how they are employed, or what they need.

Education International recognises the importance of ESP for education worldwide. They commissioned research to explore the role, impact, status, and employment conditions of ESP as part of their current focus on the ESP workforce. This research made use of a survey for ESP and a survey for union leaders to explore the differences and similarities between seven case study countries: Brazil, Canada (Quebec), France, New Zealand, Philippines, USA, and Zimbabwe. The surveys focused on the characteristics of ESP, their employment and working conditions, and support provided by their unions.

Overall, the ESP were female, aged between 40 and 60 years, and poorly paid. Most ESP earned far less than the average wage for their country. While most were permanently employed, some had very precarious work conditions. They were not paid during holiday breaks, and in some cases did not know until just a few days before the end of the holidays whether or not they would be rehired for the next school year.

There was a mismatch between the low status of ESP and the important contribution they make to the education community. Most of the ESP were satisfied with their education support roles, and confident in carrying out the tasks associated with their jobs. Most felt they made a big difference for students and for teachers. Although they felt well-respected by the teachers, school leaders, students and parents they interacted with on a daily basis, the ESP felt society as a whole accorded them average or low status.

Access to continuous professional development and learning (CPLD) opportunities for ESP was variable across the seven countries. Where ESP did have access, these opportunities tended to occur once a year. Most ESP did not have opportunities for further study towards improved qualifications, and did not have opportunities for promotion or higher responsibilities even if they could learn more about their roles.

The findings also show that the ESP were committed to their jobs: despite their low pay and worries about the permanence or long-term security of their jobs, most of the ESP were likely or very likely to be in the same job in five years’ time. The low recognition that they received for their work did not match the energy and commitment they put into it.

The ESP made it very clear that they wanted their unions to advocate on their behalf for their rights and recognition as a vital part of the education workforce. Unions were responding to this challenge by running campaigns focused on issues such as fair pay, job security, and acceptable working and employment conditions.

As a result of this research, there is a clear case for union advocacy on behalf of Education Support Personnel. Unions can:

  • Support ESP to know their legal rights and responsibilities,
  • Advocate for permanent positions and higher salaries,
  • Advocate for better opportunities for continuous professional learning and development and career progression,
  • Argue that CPLD and increased qualifications be tied to increases in salary,
  • Advocate for ESP involvement in decision-making,
  • Raise awareness of ESP roles and employment conditions amongst teachers and leaders, and
  • Celebrate the work of ESP in supporting students and creating well-functioning schools and educational institutions.

Further research always helps to build the case that ESP are vital and need to be recognised and valued. From here, it would be useful to:

  • Focus on the differences and similarities between ESP of different job categories. Teaching and learning assistants have different experiences in schools from office administrators, from lab technicians, from maintenance workers, from librarians, from the people who provide food for students. Each group is more or less visible in a school, and more or less appreciated by the teaching staff and students.
  • Interview ESP to gather more stories about their jobs and the challenges they face. Such stories would help to put a personal face on employment and working conditions and highlight the struggles that real people have trying to do their best for students whilst being poorly paid and undervalued.
  • Replicate the ESP survey in more countries and repeat the survey in five or so years’ time. This would enable working and employment conditions for ESP to be tracked across the world and across time.

The full report of the ESP survey findings is available here.


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Philippa Butler

Philippa Butler is a Research Officer at the Institute of Education, Massey University, New Zealand. Her role is entirely research-focused, and includes working on a variety of internally and externally funded research and evaluation projects. She is an expert in research methodology, and educational and anthropological research. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology, looking at people who identify with multiple ethnic groups.

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