Tags: Equality | School Business Manager/Bursar | School Financial Management | Staffing Structures

What’s an acceptable collective term for all the school business managers, administrators, catering staff, HR professionals, caretakers, secretaries and everyone else other than teachers?

By Ruth Bradbury

A friend of mine, a qualified and experienced accountant, was recently lucky enough to be appointed as a business manager at a high school recruiting for the post for the first time.

The selection process was rigorous; the competition was stiff and, on the day of the interviews, the headteacher and governors were keen to put across what an important strategic role they had created.

She was really pleased to get the job, and looking forward to joining the leadership team of a large, complex and dynamic organisation. On my friend’s first day in school, however, her perception of the nature of the post was shaken somewhat when the headteacher introduced her in staff briefing as ‘the new nonteaching girl’.

Quite aside from the dubious use of the word ‘girl’ to describe a woman in her late 30s, and all of the belittling implications that may or may not contain (would a female deputy head have been introduced as ‘the new pastoral/curriculum girl’? Equally, would a male business manager have been introduced as ‘the new non-teaching boy’?), it was the use of the term ‘non-teaching’ which she found difficult to accept.

Coming from an accountancy role elsewhere in the public sector, she is used to being regarded as a professional in her own right. To enter an environment where there appears to be acknowledgement of only one profession (teaching), and where every other member of staff is defined by what they are not, rather than what they are, has been a bit of a shock for her. I am sure she will get used to it (as I’m sure that she will get used to the toilet rolls and broken windows), and that ultimately she will find the job immensely rewarding. However, the way she was introduced and her reaction to it has set me thinking about the perennially thorny issue of settling on a collective noun for the members of the increasingly varied workforce in schools who are not from teaching backgrounds.

At present, schools tend to opt for one of three options – namely ‘non-teaching staff’, ‘associate staff’ or ‘support staff’. In the case of the first option, I have already described the main difficulty – defining people by the job that they do not do is unhelpful and is potentially demeaning. If I were to be dramatic, I could suggest that it reflects a reluctance or even a denial on the part of the school culture to acknowledge the existence, importance or impact of staff who are not teachers.

I have a similar kind of problem with the use of the term ‘associate staff’. A quick browse of the dictionary produces one positive definition for ‘associate’ – a person who shares actively in anything as a business, enterprise, or undertaking; partner; colleague; fellow worker. However, this is accompanied by two far less acceptable definitions – namely (1) a person who is admitted to a subordinate degree of membership in an association or institution, and (2) having subordinate status; without ful rights and privileges.  On balance, the term is probably slightly less offensive than ‘non-teachers’, but hardly a great leap forward for our profile and status.

The third alternative – that of ‘support staff’ – is probably the one that I find least problematic. To some extent, it accurately describes the role that is played by employees who do not teach, and the term ‘support’ has a wide range of positive connotations, including the suggestion that the staff concerned may actually have a vital role to play in the organisation. While it may be an improvement on the alternatives, though, I don’t personally think that it solves the problem completely. There is still a hint of subordinacy and, rightly or wrongly, I am still not comfortable with caretakers, dinner ladies, accountants, receptionists and IT and HR professionals being lumped together under a single label.

I must admit that I am still smarting from reading the headline of the TES article about my headship aspirations – ‘Support staff in top job’. This may be partly a result of my own hyper-sensitivity and/or self-importance of course, but I think that the use of the term was intentionally provocative to the TES readership and therefore it reveals an assumption of ultimate inequality between teachers and other school staff. After all, there many headteachers in large secondary schools who don’t have a teaching load, but I suspect there are very few who would accept the description of themselves as support staff! 

Ultimately, I think that trying to find an acceptable collective term for school support staff will always be a fruitless exercise – there are just too many roles and responsibilities to find a single word to appropriately describe them.

To me, the way forward is probably, therefore, to abandon the search and to concentrate instead on acknowledging and celebrating the wide variety of staff who now work in our schools. With the advent of extended services, and with the potential diversification of teaching/training roles accompanying the introduction of the new 14-19 diplomas, the use of one definition will become even more problematic.

I will suggest to my friend that she make her mark in her new school by referring to the staff she manages by their actual roles wherever possible, by the jobs that they do rather than by the ones that they don’t. And furthermore, as I am changing jobs at Easter, I shall follow her in my new school by doing the same. 

This article first appeared in School Financial Management – Apr 2007

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