Education Support Personnel (ESP) play a vital role in promoting quality education, fostering a safe and positive learning environment for all students, and ensuring that schools and education institutions function effectively. ESP cover a wide range of people working in the education sector, such as teaching and learning assistants, school nurses and counsellors, office staff, maintenance staff, and security staff, among others. Despite being an essential part of the education workforce, the work that ESP do is often unrecognised and undervalued.
At the moment, there are significant gaps in the knowledge and understanding of ESP: who they are, what they do, and what they need to do their jobs effectively. For this reason, Education International has commissioned research seeking to understand the kinds of support that ESP provide, their specific job categories, their employment and working conditions, their participation and representation in education unions, and the issues and challenges that they face.
The research explores the differences and similarities between seven case study countries: Brazil, Canada (Quebec), France, New Zealand, Philippines, USA, and Zimbabwe. So far, survey data have been collected in Brazil, Canada, France and New Zealand. The survey data are already painting an interesting picture, that will grow in depth and detail as findings from the other three countries come in.
The ESP who responded to the survey were predominantly female and between 40 and 60 years of age. Most of the ESP were in administration roles, except in New Zealand, where 54% of the ESP were in teaching and learning roles.
So far, the survey reveals that employment conditions and career development are the main areas requiring attention. In Brazil, Canada and France, the majority of ESP were employed full-time and permanently in their education support roles. In New Zealand, most were employed during term-time only, in either part-time or full-time roles. Across countries, the vast majority of ESP – 60 to 90% – agreed that they were not fairly paid for the work they do. In those countries where annual wage or salary data were collected, the ESP were predominantly in the lowest pay brackets.
In every country, the ESP felt that they had few opportunities for promotion or higher responsibilities. Access to professional learning and development (PLD) opportunities varied across countries. In Canada, New Zealand and France, ESP were more likely to feel they had access to formal professional learning and development (PLD) opportunities, such as workshops or training sessions run by an expert. ESP in New Zealand and Canada were more likely to feel they had access to informal PLD, through conversations with colleagues in a similar role, with teachers, or with outside agencies. Very few ESP in Brazil felt they could access either formal or informal PLD.
The preliminary analysis of the survey responses also suggests a mismatch between the low status of ESP and the important contribution they make to the education community. In fact, most of the ESP were satisfied with their education support roles, and confident in carrying out the tasks associated with their jobs. Most felt they made a big difference for students and for teachers. Although they felt universally well-respected by the teachers, school leaders, students and parents they interact with on a daily basis, the ESP felt society as a whole accorded them average or low status.
Overall, the findings from the survey show that ESP are committed to their jobs: despite their low pay and worries about the permanence or long-term security of their jobs, most of the ESP were likely or very likely to be in the same job in five years’ time. The low recognition that they get for their work does not match the energy and commitment they put into it. They are poorly paid and many are on tenuous, short-term employment contracts that do not offer job security or a career path. Many are women aged 40-60 years, who are also likely to be in caring roles in their families – either caring for their children or caring for older family members. Job security, being paid all year round, and access to benefits such as sick leave are very important issues for ESP. Unions and others who advocate for the rights of ESP can play a role in ensuring that employment conditions support a healthy work/life balance for all ESP. As this research continues, as more data are gathered, and as the stories of ESP in each country are examined more closely, hopefully we will build up the evidence that Education International and education unions around the world need to support and advocate for the rights of ESP.