Why Being a Teaching Assistant Is an Absolute Nightmare

You might think it looks like a doss, but you couldn't be more wrong.

25 January 2017, 3:54pm

Photo by Paul Sableman

Teaching is in a state of crisis. In a recent survey by The Guardian, 98 percent of teachers reported "increasing pressure", while 82 percent described their workloads as "unmanageable". It's a tale of routine 70-hour weeks, arbitrary targets, perpetual shifts in government policy and a pervading culture of crushing bureaucracy. The question of pay is also a deeply contentious issue.

At the start of this year, teaching unions made a joint call for a "significant" salary increase, arguing that there's a "crisis" in recruitment to a profession that people are leaving due to relentless overwork, stress and pressure.

For those working in the unregulated shadow world of the humble teaching assistant, some of the concerns and pressures will be familiar. For many graduate TAs working through teaching recruitment agencies, it is a life of chronic insecurity, mandatory extra hours and the unspoken expectation of taking on a variety of the roles and functions of a qualified teacher at a fraction of the price, and with none of the training. All this, and the pay isn't even good. In fact, as I found out, Teaching Assistants can end up effectively getting paid below the minimum wage.

For the agencies, this arrangement spells easy profit, garnered through generous fees. For many schools – often financially overstretched and chronically understaffed – it means a stream of cheap, enthusiastic, highly qualified and expendable labour.

A typical advertisement presents a £60 to £85 day rate as part of an "Interim/Long-Term" role within a school. The reality on both counts is often somewhat different. The process works like this: after an initial screening meeting and interview with the agency, candidates start to be put up for interviews and unpaid "trial days" at schools. After receiving an offer of employment, you might start the next day, grateful for your new job, at least certain in the knowledge of an agreed day rate. It is at this point that things start to diverge. 

At least, that's where it diverged for me. As soon as the first payslip appeared, it was accompanied by a jolt. Surely a glaring error or bog standard admin cockup? The figures made little sense. For a 40-hour-week – contracts stipulate working hours of 8 to 4, though they are often longer – the slip specified that I had been paid for 30. It meant that I ended up on less than minimum wage. 

Colleagues reported similar stories, usually accompanied by protracted eye rolls. A few were mystified that I was getting paid "so much". As the weeks drew in it became clear that this wasn't the result of a one-off HR cock-up. I heard of opaque payslips with convoluted deductions.

Will Kosek spent a year as an agency TA at an inner-city London academy. The experience didn't stop him from becoming a teacher, he tells me, "because I knew it was only for a year. It certainly dissuaded me from ever becoming a teaching assistant again. I certainly felt undervalued, and that everyone there was getting a better deal than I was. Like I was the mug in the middle doing all of the work. I definitely wouldn't go through an agency again."

For many, it's a life plagued with financial insecurity. Particularly in London, it is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain paying rent with other basic necessities. No one goes into the role expecting to get rich, but the reality is that many are forced into second, sometimes third, jobs in the evenings to make even the most basic of ends meet.

Will was lucky, acknowledging that there would be no way to survive if he hadn't been getting "mates rates" on rent. He tells me that although he didn't necessarily feel he was being "robbed", he quickly realised that "whole payment process and deductions were horribly misleading as there's little to no chance of someone understanding how the process works unless A) you work for them, or B) until you get stung." 

The terms of contracts tend to offer maximum flexibility to both school and agency, which means insecurity for TAs. There is no obligation to give notice and nothing in the way of sick pay (those lucky enough to be working directly for a school will have both, alongside a more generous rate of pay). Employment can be terminated on the same day with little or no explanation. My own faintly ludicrous experience was of turning up to work on a Friday morning to find I'd literally been erased from the system. Others have told me of similar experiences, which chipped away at their confidence and made them question their decision to launch careers in education. 

Despite telling me that he felt little bitterness towards the individual recruiters themselves, ("you'd have to pay me a huge wedge to work in recruitment") Will also makes it explicit how the agencies' operations made him considerably more cynical and wary about the frontline realities in schools: "The positive effects of highly qualified teaching assistants working with small groups of children has been supported by several recent studies, and for many aspiring teachers it acts as invaluable professional experience. Yet these instances of exploitation push young graduates away from teaching as a viable choice of profession."

Jon Richards is head of education policy at UNISON, one of the UK's largest unions. When asked about TA working conditions he said: "Teaching assistants have heavy workloads, with long hours and low pay. Many are on part-time contracts and have to take on more than one job to make ends meet. This is despite playing a vital role in helping young people achieve their full potential. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and to be paid a proper wage – not face exploitation from unscrupulous employers."

Even aside from questions of basic scrupulousness, it is also a failure on a purely pragmatic level. There's an acknowledged crises in recruitment and retention of teachers, so it makes little sense to disillusion scores of motivated graduates in the name of short-term financial gain. Exhausted, poorly remunerated, utterly expendable. Does that sound like a viable and appealing career choice?


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