Education Support Partnership: Investigating Teaching Assistant Stress.



Anna Connelly For Education Support Partnership, July 2016

As teacher workload hits an all-time high and with pressures on schools growing, it is inevitable that this is now beginning to impact on school support staff.

I have interviewed teaching assistants (TAs) from around the country with many describing how the role has become increasingly demanding, resulting in a negative impact on their health and wellbeing.

Challenging pupil behaviour

Teaching assistants often work closely with the most challenging of pupils. Constantly dealing with sometimes extreme pupil behaviour proved to be very stressful for many.

Jayne, a teaching assistant from Newcastle explains: “When I was working supporting an individual child 1 to1 all day it actually made me ill. I worked with a child who had extreme behavioural problems. He’d cause trouble in the class, crawling around and hitting himself and once, he went for a pair of scissors to do himself harm. He then turned on me and said ‘I’m telling on you, you hit me!’”

Jayne describes how stressed this made her feel: “this experience scared me, making me worry that if he had said the same thing at home, or to someone else in the school, he might have been believed over me and I could have lost my job or even worse, my children.” Eventually, this kind of experience began to impact Jayne’s health: “When I get stressed, I start to suffer from dermatitis, and on this occasion I couldn’t eat or sleep with worry. I got really run down and was extremely emotional.”

Catherine, a teaching assistant from Nottingham, said, “I was employed to work outside of the classroom, one on one, with a boy awaiting a place at exclusion unit. Two TAs had already refused to work with him anymore because of the stress his day long poor behaviour had caused them, ultimately affecting their health. After a month of working with him, I understood why and felt the same way too.”

Increasing workload & conflicting demands

All of the teaching assistants we spoke to were finding the workload expectations unfeasible. Seema, working in Ilford said: “My biggest issue is the pressure TAs are under to do a million and one things that are unrealistic in a given time frame. People are so exhausted it’s crazy…my health is suffering so much. I am often in tears from sheer exhaustion.”

Catherine agreed. “I constantly have people telling me what to do. The class teachers think they have the right to do this, supply teachers feel they do too, Phase leaders do, my SENCO thinks they do. So you can imagine that it is often quite conflicting and confusing to understand whose instructions to follow. To be honest, at times, it’s chaos: ‘do this, go there, who told you to do that?’ It really stresses me out because I’m expected to be in three places at once. Then people comment if I’m not. It’s impossible.”

TAs often report that all this makes them feel they have been set up to fail, causing them to feel bad about themselves. “I can’t fulfil all of these roles to the best of my ability and I hate how this always ends up making me feel inadequate,” said Seema.

No clear job description & multiple roles

One of the biggest problems facing support staff is they often feel that their job description is not fit for purpose and represents only a fraction of what they do.

The ‘any other duties’ part of the role is regularly open to abuse, with TAs undertaking a wide range of tasks from developing the school website to running school trips. This has been highlighted as a major cause of work-related stress.

Because of low wages and money worries, many must take up second jobs or other part-time roles within school and switch between them, often causing them to feel they are chasing their tail trying to be at each job on time. TAs often double up as the lollipop lady, office administrators, lunchtime supervisor or have roles at after-school or breakfast club.

Jill, a Hertfordshire Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA), said: “Multiple roles definitely add to the stress as the pupils have less respect for midday supervisors than TAs. Not having a proper lunch break is exhausting too and I don’t get any planning, preparation or assessment time, I just grab planning time by going to school early or during assemblies – if I am not busy in intervention sessions.”

Seema told me: “Some TAs have several roles, e.g. HLTA, 1:1 TA, year group based support. It is ridiculous for one person to fulfil all these roles.” Catherine said “I’m often told to mark at the same time as working with children.”

Unfortunately, the low status of the role, and the fact that many TAs are now being employed on insecure contracts, means that many feel it is often not possible to challenge school leadership about these issues.

Getting support if job is impacting on your mental and physical wellbeing

If your role, whether 1:1 or in class, is becoming difficult to manage, interviewees told me that things did improve when extra support or respite was brought in. So don’t be afraid to ask your line manager. If you feel you can’t, enlist a supportive class teacher or Key Stage colleague to speak to the head about your concerns. Often, heads are simply unaware of what is really happening and will happily change things.

If you don’t feel you can talk to anyone associated with your school, then the Education Support Partnership exists to provide independent, confidential support and can help you deal with stress and anxiety, bullying, money worries, and any other issues. If for any reason, you are struggling at work or home, the charity can help you. The services are free, private and can even be accessed via email or online chat, if you don’t want to speak on the phone.

If you have any fears about allegations against you, a worrying incident, or any contractual questions then do keep a diary and involve your union as early as possible. UNISON, GMB and the ATL represent the interests of support staff members.

Lastly, we know from surveys and statistics that if you are suffering stress as a result of your work in schools, you are not alone. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s likely that the other TAs are feeling the same. Why not approach fellow TAs and organise a regular support staff meeting which can be a safe space to share collective concerns which are then passed on from the group to leadership? Culture changes like this at whole-school level will give TAs a voice as frustrations become channelled into positive action.

As teaching assistants, you always make sure the children with whom you work are listened to, safe and happy. You deserve the same!



SecEd: You left us little choice, Nicky Morgan.

This article appeared in April 21 issue of Sec Ed magazine. 

Nicky Morgan took on the teacher trade unions during the Easter conference season, but her ‘call to arms’ only served to show us exactly what this government thinks the role of our unions should be.

It would be hard to imagine an address that could be quite as embarrassing as Nicky Morgan’s speech to delegates at the recent NASUWT annual conference.

It is unfair, though, to suggest her speech was poorly received. There are people who go on Live at the Apollo who can’t get that many laughs from an audience.

But the part that wasn’t at all funny was the education secretary’s comments about NASUWT which, in their conclusion, reveal much about this government’s true vision for the role of unions and therefore the concerns of teachers: mainly that they should “put up and shut up”.

Ms Morgan announced that she had “visited the NASUWT website” and was horrified to see that “of the last 20 press releases NASUWT has issued only three said anything positive” (those press releases concern abuse, inequality, work-related mental health issues, inadequate pay, budget cuts and exploitation of supply staff).

Mistaking the fundamental work of a union for that of a Tory PR company, Ms Morgan admonished delegates: “Wouldn’t it be helpful if more of your press releases were actually positive about the teaching profession? Because if I were a young person making decisions about my future career and I saw some of the language coming out of NASUWT as well as some of the other unions, would I want to become a teacher? If I read about a profession standing on the precipice of crisis would I consider a life in teaching?”

Many people have perceived the recent education White Paper’s assertion that “recruitment is becoming more difficult as the economy grows stronger, competition for the best graduates and career changers increases” as the DfE’s admission that there is a recruitment crisis.

Rather, it is back to the Govian school of academic rigour which states only “top” graduates make “top teachers”. There are 86 instances of the phrase “the best” in the White Paper. Educational Excellence Everywhere equals elitism. Ms Morgan wants teachers to shut up about how unhappy they are in case high-flying graduates overhear.

The reason that the dialogue surrounding the teacher crisis remains unproductive is that the government is still unable to distinguish between the concept of recruitment and that of retention. The government has realised too late that the collateral damage of the recruitment crisis is one of bad PR. The narrative of “workload”, “stress” and “Ofsted” is now running alongside one of Goodbye, Mr Chips.

When it comes to teacher training, the government must recognise there now exists a double process: students do not only decide whether or not to train to teach, they then decide whether they want to teach enough to let their life be engulfed by their job. If they do decide to teach, there is a good chance they could become another statistic at any stage of their career.

Both Labour and the teaching unions are trying to tell the government that there is a hole in their bucket and the government replies: “But we keep pouring more water in and it’s of a better quality than ever!”

This talk of “negative unions” sabotaging teaching is nothing new. It is just the latest snipe in a long and predictable party line. At last year’s Conservative conference, schools minister Nick Gibb accused general secretary Dr Mary Bousted of having low expectations of pupils. More recently, the Department for Education said that Dr Bousted raising concerns about sexism in schools is “why sexism still exists”.

You’ll have heard NASUWT delegates choking on their coffee with indignation when in her speech Ms Morgan accused unions of rhetoric and dishonesty and adding to the problem.

Now, the Trade Union Bill represents another disarming of the unions and could, among other changes, make it more difficult to strike, as its proposals are to classify teaching as an “important public service” therefore requiring a 50 per cent turnout in ballots. The Bill would increase strike notice and defeat the object of withdrawing labour anyway as agency workers could be brought in. Why? The final insult: to stop “hardworking people’s lives being disrupted”.

Worse, forced academisation means that previously agreed conditions and pay become no longer valid as academies are not bound by the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document. How worrying that the word “forced” is used to describe so much of this government’s activity.

Ultimately, “teaching unions have a choice”, Ms Morgan tells us: “Spend the next four years doing battle with us and doing down the profession they represent in the process, or stepping up, seizing the opportunities and promise offered by the White Paper.” The education secretary warned: “There isn’t another government just around the corner. So I stand before you today to ask you to step up. Decide to be a part of the exciting changes happening.”

The trouble is, Ms Morgan, asking us implies that we actually get to decide whether to partake. Sadly, this government has left the teaching unions with very little choice any more.

Anna Connelly, SecEd