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UK schools forced to rely on assistants as cheap cover for teachers

by editor

Teaching assistants are being asked to take over teaching duties when teachers are absent, without enough help or pay, according to a UNISON report.


A new report from UNISON, the UK’s largest union for public service employees, reveals a concerning trend in schools across England and Wales, where teaching assistants are increasingly being relied upon to cover for absent teachers, often without adequate support or resources. 

The report highlights the impact of ongoing teacher shortages, pushing support staff into leading lessons and managing entire classes on their own, contrary to national guidelines.

‘Unacceptable and exploitative’

Based on a survey of nearly 6,000 teaching assistants, the report outlines that 45% of respondents are covering more classes compared to the previous school year.

Three-quarters of those surveyed (75%) stated that covering an entire class often means they end up teaching rather than just supervising students.

Despite national guidelines advising against teaching by support staff, the reality on the ground is vastly different. Many parents, unaware of this situation, assume their children are being taught by qualified teachers. 

UNISON head of education Mike Short said, “The strain imposed on teaching assistants is both unacceptable and exploitative. When they’re leading full classes, teaching assistants are being diverted from what they do best and pupils who need additional support are missing out.

“Schools’ budgets are so tight that, instead of getting in supply teachers to cover classes, heads are having to use teaching assistants on the cheap. Ministers are entirely responsible for the funding crisis that’s putting schools in this impossible position.”

The strain on teaching assistants is exacerbated by the lack of additional compensation for these increased responsibilities, with 75% reporting receiving no extra pay for stepping into teaching roles.

Impact on teaching quality is significant

About 39% of respondents report covering classes for at least five hours per week, which equates to roughly one school day per week or half a term’s cover over the school year. 

This shift in responsibilities not only affects the quality of education but also leaves teaching assistants unable to carry out their usual tasks, impacting the pupils they support. Nearly half (49%) of teaching assistants in primary schools state that they rarely or never receive support when covering classes.

Only half (51%) of those covering classes receive lesson plans, and a concerning 81% believe this deployment negatively affects special educational needs provision.

UNISON, the union behind the report, is calling for urgent action to address this situation. They emphasize the importance of recognising the skills of teaching assistants, ensuring adequate compensation, and ultimately addressing the wider funding crisis affecting schools.

This reliance on teaching assistants to fill gaps left by teacher shortages not only impacts education quality but also risks exacerbating recruitment and retention challenges in schools. 

As schools grapple with constrained budgets, the strain on teaching assistants underscores the need for sustainable, long-term solutions to safeguard the quality of education for all pupils.

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