The contribution of support staff to student achievement must be recognised and promoted, says Paul Ainsworth
How do you determine what makes a successful school? In the current climate of league tables there is one immediate way to see if your school is successful and that is to see how students’ levels of attainment or value added measures compare with other schools. At some point during the school year a member of the senior leadership team will take the teaching staff through the school’s results. When I was a middle leader there were days when I would bask in the rosy glow of my faculty’s results. The continual curve of improvement both for my team and the school as a whole gave me a positive to begin the term. I would then work with my team and use this success to act as a catalyst for us to set higher and higher targets. As a senior manager the process is replicated, except now I am working with middle leaders who I hope will then return to their teams of teachers inspired to strive for ever more impressive results.
Going beyond results
As all readers of this publication are continually aware, however, a successful school is far more than the results of the efforts of teachers who work in the classroom. Every member of the school staff contributes to student development which, whether we like it or not, is measured by student attainment. In many schools the school business manager line manages the support staff. Therefore, one of their roles must be to communicate to these colleagues just how valuable their work is in ensuring the school’s success. Many of our support staff are paid modest salaries. Ironically though, they can often be the most loyal of staff, with the lowest employee turnover in the organisation. Their reasons may be varied for wishing to work in a school but their motivation for conducting their roles in an effective manner is generally pride in doing the job well. Pride alone is a considerable motivator for many teachers, and the achievement of students measured through results amplifies that behaviour further. For learning support staff this process has been made far easier in recent years. In the past teaching assistants would move from student to student, lesson to lesson and department to department almost like a pinball. Although a permanent part of the special needs team, the scatter gun approach to support staff timetabling and lack of continuity made it difficult to identify how they had contributed to students’ attainment. Since the teachers’ workload agreement in 2000 and then workforce reform in 2002, many schools have located their teaching assistants in a single faculty or department under the line management and performance management of the appropriate middle leader rather than the special educational needs coordinator. As a result they perform a much more varied role which can include assessment, data entry, the teaching of catch-up groups, the preparation of materials as well as the more traditional elements of the job of in-class support and developing classroom displays. Consequently, the teaching assistant recognises their role in student attainment through the immediate results of their team and also through the results of the school as a whole. So how can the leadership team provide this link between school success and the work of everybody in the organisation? A good analogy I heard recently compared a school to a piece of fruit. The students were the core at the centre with the teaching staff including teaching assistants being the flesh around the core. The support staff as a whole is then represented as the skin which holds it all together; the extra layer of protection which enables classrooms to work effectively. On many levels this is a nice representation but it does not match my philosophy of a school, suggesting as it does that the support staff are distanced from the students. In the schools of the future and even now I do not see that as the case; instead all support staff will work ever more closely with students.
Links to Every Child Matters
There is of course a government initiative which does directly link the work of the support staff with school effectiveness and that is the Every Child Matters agenda. We need to negotiate support staff roles and discuss how they relate to this initiative. If the school fully implements an Every Child Matters vision, students will realise their potential, and this will be subsequently reflected in higher attainment. From a far more pragmatic view an Ofsted inspection will focus on ECM so if this is used as a common currency in the organisation, it is far more likely to have been implemented effectively. There are five key elements in the ECM agenda: Be healthy; Stay safe; Enjoy and achieve; Make a positive contribution; Achieve economic wellbeing. So how do the roles of our support staff fit within these headings?
Most obvious here is the role the catering team have to play, as they strive to provide healthy and nutritious meals and snacks. With the advent of extended services a number of students will be eating breakfasts, hot snacks at break and hot meals at lunchtime at school and sometimes after school too. The hope is that healthy, well-nourished students will learn more productively in their lessons. This agenda also encompasses the work of lunchtime supervisors. Schools are increasingly training these staff as play leaders in primary and secondary schools. Healthy use of lunchtimes to play friendly team games also aids students’ concentration. Sports colleges or schools with a community sports dimension will have staff who can perform a similar function but with a more organised slant. They may also run different types of fitness courses for those children who do not usually access organised activities. As well as improving their general fitness students’ self-esteem is raised. Finally there are the health care professionals – nurses and counsellors who may not be directly employed by the school but whose work is so valuable in enabling the children to cope with the difficulties they face.
This is clearly linked to being healthy. It is important here to consider the efforts of the premises staff who work to ensure the school is clean and any health and safety issues are dealt with. Students who attend schools which are not clean, especially in areas like student toilets, can feel unsafe or these can be bullying hot spots. The premises staff are crucial in ensuring the school does not suffer from these blights. It can be frustrating when toilets are vandalised by a small group of children, but it is important that we consider the many who are as horrified by these acts as we are. There is also the safe recruitment of staff that our administrators deal with to ensure all our colleagues work with the best interests of our students at heart. Then there is the role that every member of staff should perform and that is to intervene if we see a problem or to be available if a student wishes to confide something in us. The best schools are those where all staff see this as their responsibility rather than someone else’s role.
Making a positive contribution
Students can learn from seeing all staff as role models in the way they conduct their duties, the methods of communication that are used and the pride displayed. This is something all staff do in their day-to-day work and is not something that can be allocated to certain members of the support staff team. Some schools are encouraging all of their staff to be student mentors or even form tutors. Training is required for staff to fulfil this duty, but mentoring is increasingly being seen as vital in ensuring children reach their potential. Different staff can reach different students in a variety of ways and the more staff who are involved then the more time can be invested in each student.
This can be thought of as enabling all children to reach their potential, whatever their social background. A high-quality childcare provision can enable children to develop while their parents are working. There is also a key role for the financial team in managing budgets effectively so the largest proportion of money is spent directly on students. Taking this further it could be the work of the school business manager to identify funding streams and then write successful applications to generate additional revenue for the school. The school can also work sensitively to ensure students receive further money they are entitled to, so they have the equipment they need and the opportunities to participate in school trips. The catering staff can implement systems so that students can partake of their free school dinners without stigma. There are still a large number of students who will not take up this benefit for fear of losing face among their peers.
Enjoy and achieve
The way we work and interact positively with students can increase their enjoyment of their school day. There is no reason why support staff cannot help in extra-curricular provision if they have skills or a desire to do so. The school business manager could take this further by actively encouraging support staff to do so. It may take some flexibility in terms of covering staff to enable participation, but the enjoyment derived from both students and colleagues makes it really worthwhile.
Every staff member matters
One of the key messages in this article is that all staff in our schools have a crucial role to play in the achievement of the students. We may not all be working directly in front of the students in a classroom. In fact the amount of time the senior leadership team spend on this activity is limited and yet unquestionably their roles are devoted to student achievement. Therefore, there is no reason why the work the support staff perform cannot be similarly focused. If you communicate this vision to all the staff in your school you must really live it. So the next time the school has a celebration because of record examination results, an outstanding inspection or a successful bid, ensure that every member of staff is not only invited but actively encouraged to attend and feel that their contribution has had a tangible and recognised impact on the students they work so hard to support.
Forging closer links with students
A business manager attended selected student council meetings in order to hear the students’ views on school spending priorities, as well as explaining to students the basics of finance in schools. Several suggestions were made by the students that could be addressed by the business manager, with a resulting improvement in facilities for all.
A bursar was invited to get involved in the annual project week activities of a school, which take place at the end of the academic year. The bursar accompanied the children on days out and worked with them in school on various creative projects. The week allowed the bursar to get to know students informally and learn more about their interests and needs.
A finance manager led an assembly at a school that encouraged young people to take greater personal financial responsibility. This led to the profile of the finance manager in the school being improved, as well as helping students with a valuable life skill.
Paul Ainsworth is the deputy head at Belvoir High School