Decent work for education support personnel now!

published 17 May 2022 updated 10 June 2022

On the occasion of World Education Support Personnel (ESP) Day, Education International organised a virtual event where member organisations representing ESP at all education levels and in every corner of the globe highlighted the crucial yet underrecognised role played by ESP in quality education systems, as well as the need to provide them with decent working conditions.

ESP are the glue that holds together quality education institutions

Opening the webinar, Education International’s President Susan Hopgood highlighted that, “for more than two years we have seen education communities step up and come together to do whatever it takes to keep education going, support the bereaved, and help students struggling to catch up after long education institution closures. Education support personnel, in all their roles, have been key to making this happen.”

She went on to stress: “In crisis, and in all times, education support personnel are doing crucial work to maintain happy, safe, healthy and vibrant education communities. Working inter-dependently and collaboratively with teachers, researchers and other education workers, they are the glue that holds together quality education institutions, at all levels, from early childhood to higher education.”

Regretting that these professionals’ contribution to quality education is systematically underrecognized and undervalued internationally, she condemned the fact that, in many contexts we are now seeing trends towards increased privatisation and outsourcing of vital ESP roles, or deprofessionalisation of ESP through poor working conditions, a lack of professional development opportunities and the hiring of under-qualified staff.

This is not acceptable, she said. “To achieve quality education for all students, in every school or university and in every country, we need decent work for education support personnel now!”

Hopgood called on all governments to enact the Education International’s Declaration on the Rights and Status of Education Support Personnel and urged Education International’s member organisations across the world to use the Declaration as a tool to fight for their members’ right to decent work.

ILO supports educators

Oliver Liang, Head of the Public and Private Services Unit at International Labour Organization (ILO), explained that, “while the ILO used to focus on teachers, now it recognizes the importance of focusing on other groups like school leaders and ESP too. It really is a whole team of people supporting a student in his or her learning journey. That is why the ILO now uses the inclusive term ‘educators’ to describe teachers, school leaders, ESP and all workers in the education system.”

The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized this message further, heremarked, as these “heroes” contributed to the continuity of education during the pandemic.

The ILO recognises the important role of ESP, who are frontline workers deserving protection against violence and diseases, he noted. The organisation is concerned with the wellbeing of educators and respect for their role in social dialogue.

Countering the constant restructuring of ESP work in higher education

The webinar welcomed participants of the 3rd UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education taking place in Barcelona, Spain, from May 18-20 and included a focus on the fundamental contribution support staff make to quality higher education for all.

Alison Barnes, president of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), Australia, underlined that ESP in the higher education sector, mainly women, have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. They suffered from job losses and a constant restructuring of their work, leading to “devastating consequences for those who do the job, with a massive increase of their workload, but also a decline in students’ learning conditions.”

ESP continue to live in fear of job loss, restructuring and a sense that their job is not valued by university directors and governments, she observed.

NTEU therefore:

• Draws attention to issues these workers face.

• Advocates for a cap on the number of restructurings per individual per year.

• Demands remuneration for work done over normal working hours.

• Seeks to protect ESP from workload intensification.

Despite their pride in doing their job, ESP are out of breath

Valérie Fontaine, president of the Fédération du personnel de soutien de l’enseignement supérieur-Centrale des syndicats du Québec (FPSES-CSQ), Canada, said that her union deplores a shortage of ESP, rampant privatisation linked to that shortage, and a lack of recognition. “When ESP leave their jobs, they do not get replaced, due to financing and worker shortage, which leads to workload increase for those who stay. Despite their pride in doing their job, ESP are out of breath.”

FPSES-CSQ demands:

  • Better recognition of ESP by university management.
  • The creation of a culture of collaboration.
  • Wage increases and wage catch-up to restore purchasing power.
  • A public service that is once again an employer of choice.
  • Investment in ESP in the workforce.

Fontaine underlined that “without us, education institutions cannot work. We must create a better sense of union membership, to develop a pride in representing ESP.”

Union challenges and successes in supporting ESP

Guelda Andrade of the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Educação Educadores (CNTE)/Brazil, Jose Luis Garcia Mancera of the Federacion De Enseñanza De Comisiones Obreras (FE.CC.OO.)/Spain, Pablo De León of the Asociación de Trabajadores de Educación Secundaria (ATES)/Uruguay, Debra Ward Mitchell of the National Education Association (NEA)/USA, Julie-Anne Roberts and Ally Kemplen of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), and Sylvester Mutindindi of the Zimbabwe Educational Scientific, Social & Cultural Workers’ Union (ZESSCWU) then took the floor to talk about the experiences of Education International’s members representing ESP across sectors and regions.

Among other issues, they stressed that:

  • Schools are spaces where children are developing as human beings, therefore they need professionals, like ESP, working there, and a network to defend them.
  • ESP are leaving their jobs at an alarming rate, due to lack of professional respect.
  • We can find hope in the power of unions and collective bargaining.
  • ESP often suffer from precarious working conditions and have little professional recognition.

Notably, colleagues from NZEI reported on the success achieved by their union in raising their status and working conditions.

“In 2017, we made a pay equity claim for support staff. The government agreed to take this on, and we were able to raise awareness around ESP status and working conditions through local and national media. We were brave enough to tell our own stories.” NZEI now has an agreement with the government to end fixed-term contracts for members.

In her concluding remarks, the moderator, Marjolaine Perreault, General Director of the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ)/Canada and member of the Education International’s Executive Board, said: “We must highlight the harsh working conditions of ESP, their work overload, and continue Education International’s actions to promote their unionisation. In Quebec, we will soon be leading negotiations for the renewal of ESP working conditions. We will certainly be inspired by our New Zealand colleagues,” she noted.

Perreault ended the meeting by urging participants to use the Education International’s Declaration on the Rights and Status of Education Support Personnel to call their governments to ensure decent work for ESP.