World Education Support Personnel Day: Pandemic, Privatisation and Public Education

published 15 May 2021 updated 2 July 2021

Education International fixed 16 May of every year as a day to recognise Education Support Personnel (ESP). The day focuses on rights and status of these  education workers, has called attention internationally to the essential role of ESP.

COVID19 has brought recognition and respect for front-line workers who have taken risks and worked hard to protect health and to ensure vital services in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Among the workers who have seen their role and contributions placed in the limelight and praised as never before, are Education Support Personnel (ESP). It is not clear, however, if this support for ESP will continue after the health crisis is over.

ESP and the Pandemic

ESP were not often visible to the general public prior to the pandemic. Teachers, students and their families however, have always relied on ESP.

All those who have contact with ESP in classrooms, administration, canteens, in school libraries, cleaning and security, maintenance, transport or other school services, know they are central to the functioning of schools and a quality education.

ESP have always been critical to positive and safe learning environments and to making sure that education institutions function effectively, however, even inside education systems their contributions have not always been fully appreciated. Too often they do not have access to quality training and career development and aren’t consulted on issues that impact their profession.

During school closures around the world, ESP provided meals to students and families, kept school facilities clean and safe, and worked tirelessly to address the mental health of their students. They have delivered books, set up wi-fi stations, and provided support to students in need.

Unfortunately, the wave of public appreciation of front-line workers rarely took the form of better compensation or working conditions. In some countries, there were temporary bonuses.

Many ESP remained overworked and underpaid. Some had little or no job security and had precarious contracts. In some countries, they were laid off without compensation during school and university closures.

ESP and Recovery

In a post-pandemic period, recovery will depend on additional public spending to boost the economy and public services that have been strained by the health, economic and associated crises. When that is beyond national means, it will require solidarity to move the world forward together.

Just as universal availability of vaccines is essential for a global health recovery, international solidarity is the key to a sustainable social and economic recovery.

As schools return to in-person learning, the availability of ESP in sufficient numbers and with the required tools to maintain appropriate levels of sanitation is key to successful reopening.

Unfortunately, many governments are already planning stable or reduced budgets for public services. Some recognise the need to stimulate industries that have been affected by the pandemic, but fail to understand the crucial social, economic, and other contributions to recovery that education and other public services represent.

Privatisation and public-private partnerships (PPP) have often been embraced by governments in times of austerity, although they often neither reduce costs nor improve quality. In education, privatisation, commercialisation, and PPPs have taken many forms: private and for profit schools; increased dependence on private companies for policy or curriculum; or in the design and operation of standardised testing and evaluation systems. Private firms have assumed some education responsibilities, including through partnerships with EdTech companies to digitalise education. For education services performed by ESP, it has often taken the form of sub-contracting work.

ESP and Privatisation

In the austerity period that followed the 2008-2009 financial and economic crisis, some education systems contracted out services such as food, transport, cleaning, and security. This privatisation was often encouraged by international financial institutions, especially the World Bank.

Private companies that provide these services may be local or national or multinational. To give an example, the French-based company Sodexo operates canteens and other food services in both the private and public sectors. According to their 2020 annual report, 19 per cent of their revenue comes from schools and universities (reduced in that year due to school closures). There are also multinational companies delivering cleaning, security, and transportation services.

ESP, even if they are working for private contractors, are still part of the school community, but that relationship may become more tenuous with outsourcing.

Depending on national laws and practices, ESP may or may not be able to transfer their employment to private companies. ESP workers may or may not be covered by collective agreements. If they are covered by such agreements, they are often agreements in food services or transport, or cleaning or other sectors rather than education. In many cases, their links to schools can be severed if they are re-assigned to jobs in other workplaces.

EI General Secretary David Edwards, explains that, “for ESP, like for workers in other education sectors, recovery from the pandemic holds opportunities as well as dangers. Boosting investment in ESP can extend the reach and improve the quality of education.

Governments must understand that quality education requires funding. Contracting out their responsibilities for public education may seem like a cheap answer, but it is not a good investment.”

Fostering positive, safe learning environments to ensure that educational institutions function effectively for all students requires ESP that is supported, compensated and empowered to advocate for their profession and for their students.