Jon Richards (@tiddymoke) is National Secretary for Education for UNISON,  the UK’s largest public services union, which includes 350,000 education members. Jon sits on the DfE’s Education Forum and represents the European Public Services Union on the EU Education Sector Social Dialogue and the Public Service International’s Education Support Workers Network.  He also sits on the TUC’s Public Sector Liaison Group; Education Unions Forum and their Alliance for Science.

From humble beginnings

Teachers don’t get enough CPD and the Government recognises that quality is an issue; hence the well received Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development.

Great news for teaching staff, but it doesn’t address the needs of school support staff, who make up the other 50% of the workforce. Fortunately, many schools recognise that what’s good for teachers is good for support staff. However others will just see the word ’teachers’ and focus their resources there.

As recent governments haven’t designed policies for the whole school team, UNISON decided to step in working with supportive and progressive organisations such as the Teacher Development Trust.

From its inception 25 years ago UNISON has championed lifelong learning. Our Return to Learn Scheme has been hugely successful in reconnecting workers who have been away from learning or struggled when they were younger.  A free, short and supportive course, it encourages staff to move on to more formal education.

We have also long sought to improve work related training and development. Our programme of one-day workshops with the Open University includes courses such as Managing Challenging Behaviour, Autism Awareness and Mental Health Awareness; which can we run separately, but also jointly with schools.

Skills for schools

A pivotal change in the school workforce was the 2003 Raising Standards and Tackling Workload Agreement. This sought to relieve pressure on teachers and create new roles and career pathways for support staff. To map out the new world UNISON (working with the now abolished Teaching Development Agency) set up our Skills for Schools website. This (soon to be updated) site is an open access online guide to careers, training and development for support staff in schools. It has a simple career planner, case studies and a (currently under developed) library. Additionally it has a specific section for support staff in Wales, where their Education Workforce Council regulates some school support staff alongside teachers.

Teaching assistants

The 2003 agreement led to an explosion in the number of teaching assistants (TAs), from around 70,000 twenty years ago to almost 390,000 today. Despite the huge range of  knowledge, skills and qualifications that TAs possess, this rapid increase in numbers was not accompanied by job specific training or development, nor were teachers guided on how to use TAs effectively. Only after a shock 2009 report by the Institute of Education (IoE) raised questions about the impact of TAs did a serious contemplation begin. Some commentators continue to misinterpret the IoE study and call for the removal of TAs from schools.  The IoE, UNISON and others have shown that the issues raised in the report were down to poor deployment and training not the TAs themselves. The Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) project ( has been set up to improve deployment and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has carried out several TA led research programmes, which conclude that TAs can significantly improve pupil outcomes, but only if they are properly trained and effectively utilised. These projects and the EEF guide ‘Making the Best use of Teaching Assistants, can be found here. UNISON is also sponsoring two school based TA research projects: one on metacognition and another on whole school approaches to handwriting.

Working with MITA and other progressive organisations, UNISON published the Professional Standards for Teaching Assistants in 2016. Additionally UNISON working with the National Education Trust produced the guide: ‘Career Framework and Continuing Professional Development for Teaching Assistants’, which provides advice for school leadership teams.

Together all these resources give schools comprehensive practical frameworks and clear recommendations to transform the way teaching assistants are deployed, help them thrive and improve pupil outcomes. Fortunately we are seeing increased take up by schools.

Spreading the love

UNISON doesn’t just work on TAs; we want to improve professional development for all school staff.

We played a key role in the government’s school food plan and helped draw up the school food standards and professional standards for catering staff.  To monitor how things were progressing in kitchens we recently ran a survey. As well as expected stress and workload issues we found that a worrying 33% of staff had not been trained recently, around 30% hadn’t seen the food standards and only a fifth were aware of the professional standards. There is clearly more work to do.

As part of the revamp to our Skills for Schools website we are building an e-learning portal for exams officers, working with The Exams Office – the largest support organisation for this group. This will include an induction module for new workers and different levels for more experienced staff and should be ready by the autumn.

We are also building alliances with school technician organisations. Despite the increased focus on practicals, particularly in science, technicians remain an overlooked group. Yet they are potential role models for the government in their promotion of professional and technical career routes. From 5-9th March we are sponsoring #TECHOGNITION week, a national celebration of the work of science technicians, with the science support website Preproom. Work on standards and CPD with Preproom and other technician groups will follow.

We also work with the Institute of School Business Leaders (the school business manager professional body) on standards, qualification and work on apprentices  and are raising the vital and underrated work of school office staff.

CPD needs time and resources, but also to be pertinent. It is great that some support staff are now asked to attend inset days with teachers, but only if the sessions are relevant. It is far better to identify differential support staff training needs rather than just bolt them on – the TDT Network’s CPD audit process can support with this. At a time of financial stringencies we need to utilise every staff member effectively. This means CPD for all staff to ensure that children and young people get the best education and support they can.

Hear more about staff career development for support staff and teachers at TDT’s Career Development Summit in London on Friday 18th May. Guests include Jon Richards (UNISON), Ofsted, the DfE, Lucy Crehan, Ann Mroz and many school and system leaders.

Promotional image for career development summit