Worlds of Education

Carrying the community: how privatization and funding shortfalls are affecting Education Support Personnel

published 16 May 2024 updated 16 May 2024
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In November 2023, the North Tyneside Council in England announced that it would withdraw from providing catering to local schools. In August that year, lawmakers in Austin, Texas, passed a law allowing unlicensed chaplains to work as school counsellors, while in March in Gauteng, staff working in South Africa’s National School Nutrition Programme protested being classified as volunteers and being paid a stipend.

Common to these decisions is that, by cutting funding for the provision of educational services or transferring them from the public to the private sector, they narrow the scope of public education. Over the past several months, we have examined the impact of such different forms of privatization on the working conditions of education support personnel in primary and secondary schools for Education International. In addition to reviewing scientific evidence, our research involved speaking to union representatives, bus drivers, janitors, school administrators, and teaching assistants, among others, from around the world.

Our report finds extensive evidence of the detrimental impact of privatization and funding shortfalls on the working conditions of education support personnel, on their social status and voice, as well as on their ability to contribute to the quality and inclusiveness of educational communities.

Research has documented the adverse impact of privatization on workers’ conditions in a range of sectors. Participants in our project confirmed that this is also the case for education support personnel. They increasingly face disrupted schedules, heavier workloads, stagnant or declining wages, loss of benefits, and precarious contracts.

The consequences of these developments are all the more devastating given the already precarious status of some roles, many of which rely on informally qualified workers and people from historically marginalized communities. One does not have to be a bus driver or school librarian to imagine what it is like to not know where you will be working next month, or if you will have a job after summer vacation.

While these effects are troubling enough, we also found that they erode the social and professional status of education support personnel.

Our report finds that staff across roles are increasingly isolated and forced into new forms of competition with colleagues. Rather than being employed by schools or education authorities, they are increasingly working for private companies or departments that can move them around schools or districts at will. Consequently, the essentially pedagogical value of their work is undermined.

“I feel like a clipped bird”, said one of our participants, a teaching aid, as she told us about situations in which she faced a lack of autonomy and support, despite investing her own personal time in attending training and developing materials for students with special needs. Others told us that as the pedagogical value of their work is increasingly overlooked, they are denied access to professional development when funding cuts reduce availability. Such undervaluing is not only facilitated by privatization, but, in a vicious cycle it further increases the vulnerability of these staff members to cuts and outsourcing.

As a result of these developments, working in public education is becoming increasingly unattractive. Union representatives across countries told us of members who are considering whether to stay in a sector that systematically devalues their skills, or to move to other sectors. Such considerations are further galvanized by what many described as a gendered "love penalty" which denigrates the skills and labor of support staff to “volunteer” or “care” work. At a time when authorities around the world are struggling to staff schools, these developments threaten quality education for all.

As dozens of studies have confirmed, education support personnel act as a crucial link between schools and communities. They engage pedagogically with students in ways that complement teacher-led instruction. And they ensure that education is inclusive of those who have been historically marginalized.

The extent to which they can continue to do so depends on how public schooling and the different kinds of educational work that it entails are defined, funded, and valued. In talking with union officials and individual staff members, we were impressed by the strategies developed to both resist privatization and demonstrate the value of a broad understanding of public education. Our report discusses such activities in the hope of providing inspiration to EI member organizations around the world.

In the words of a teaching aide who shared their perspectives for our report: “Better conditions for the students is better conditions for us”. Our report shows that, in turn, ensuring better conditions for education support workers means improving conditions for the educational communities they carry. Only through proper recognition of and comprehensive investments in support personnel can we realize the global commitment to inclusive, quality education for all students.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.