“Towards recognising Education Support Personnel within education unions’ work worldwide”, by Matthew McGowan

I had the privilege of attending Education International’s first conference on Education Support Personnel (ESP) on May 15 and 16 this year. As the first ever conference for staff who work in education in professional and support roles, it was not only an important event for those involved – it also has the potential to change the way we all discuss the delivery of education.

Acknowledging the contribution of all education workers

For many participants, I suspect the opportunity to discuss their roles and how they contribute to the educational project was refreshing and valuable. The lived experiences shared by participants indicated a frustration at not having our contributions recognised in the education workplaces.

In some cases, these contribution are ones that allow or enable teachers and academics to do their work effectively.  If someone doesn’t pay the electricity bill, there are no lights. If someone doesn’t clean the classrooms, they would be a mess.  In other cases, sometimes involving the same people, the contribution is listening and providing guidance to a student who is struggling. Or it is a direct role in teaching and other supports that make it possible for students to learn.  In our universities, technical staff set up classrooms and provide direction to students about how to make the most of the equipment.  Librarians offer a bit of everything; support, guidance, and facilitation.

For many attending the conference, it was the first time these contributions had been fully acknowledged. This recognition was uplifting as it recognised the full range of support that goes into educational settings. It is clearly the case that recognising the complementary and interdependent roles that professional, support, and teaching staff play is an important step in understanding how to best improve our educational institutions.  

From greater recognition to better conditions 

At this conference we were also there as unionists, as well as participants in the education project.  Many of those present identified with comments about lack of recognition, an issue that affects more than their feelings and morale.  The absence of recognition not only  contributes to lesser outcomes in the classroom, but also to inferior conditions of employment. 

It was reported that in some countries, funding models do not recognise the support infrastructure required and restricted funding is used to keep workers in insecure and part time work. In one case, the conference heard that support staff were not legally permitted to collectively bargain for wages and conditions.

We were told about the impact of contracting out of ESP work in all countries present.  This was manifested in many locations by the degradation of working conditions, pay, and of educational standards.  When work is contracted out, the people replacing school staff are often poorly paid, and have no connection to the workplace.  Is it any wonder that student experiences are diminished as a consequence?

The way forward 

It is worth noting that EI is a body dominated by teaching unions and staff. It has focused heavily over the years on the interests of teachers and academics as might be expected. However, since 2014, EI has made significant progress in acknowledging and supporting the work of ESP, and to providing a real voice. This has not only resulted in the establishment of a taskforce to focus on ESP, but much more. 

Informed by the taskforce, EI has worked to give real effect to their commitment to ESP workers. Across EI’s activities, more inclusive language is clearly apparent. Work with the ILO and UNESCO is also now reflecting an understanding of the broader education workforce. 

In some countries, ESP can go unrepresented by any union and in some cases there is a divide between teacher unions and those who represent ESP.  In other countries like my own, we work together with teaching and academic unionists for our collective good.  Our goal should be to increase union membership across the globe regardless of the configurations within unions.  To support each other, and to ensure we can collectively improve the outcomes for students.

The next steps are important.  EI can play an important role in encouraging equality of recognition in the workplace.  By continuing to incorporate a broader understanding of what it takes to educate a student into its work, by giving ESP opportunities to share experiences and strategise about improving their working conditions, and by supporting those that most need support, we can collectively improve our understanding of education and the community it takes to educate a child.

This conference, and the establishment of International ESP Day on May 16, is a clear move to imbed ESP in the work of EI.  There is more to be done, but from the perspective of an ESP who is committed to working in education and is committed to improving the working lives of our members, it is fantastic that we now have somewhere to call home – a place where our work is acknowledged and recognised as complementary and interdependent in the education project.


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Matthew McGowan

Matthew McGowan is the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU)’s National Assistant Secretary since 2010. He is the former secretary of the union's Victorian division and has been a union activist throughout his working life. He is a member of Education International’s Education Support Personnel Task Force.

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