Big variations in support staff spending by schools

The number of teaching assistants (TAs) employed by state-funded schools in England has more than trebled since the turn of the century and they now represent a quarter of the school workforce. That’s among the findings of a new analysis from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), which also found that there are big differences between schools in terms of expenditure on support staff, even among schools with similar types of intake.

The EPI’s report Understanding school revenue expenditure: Expenditure on teaching assistants, found that the number of full-time-equivalent TAs in state-funded English schools rose from 79,000 to 260,000 between 2002/03 and 2016/17. Over the same period per pupil expenditure on education support staff (which includes, but is not limited to, TAs) increased by 138 per cent in real terms, eight times the rate of increase seen in expenditure on teachers. It means 15p in every pound spent by schools is on education support staff.

These headline figures are not quite the whole picture, as the EPI have found major variations in the level of expenditure between different schools. For example, in primary schools in 2017 the top quartile of expenditure on education support staff was 51 per cent higher than the lowest quartile of expenditure. Amongst secondary schools in the same year the difference was 64 per cent. These variations were true even for schools with similar characteristics. Taking levels of disadvantage as one example, amongst primary schools with high levels of free school meal (FSM) eligibility (i.e. over 25 per cent of pupils eligible for FSM), schools at the top quartile of expenditure spent 45 per cent more than schools at the bottom quartile.

However the report does find that, despite variations between schools, in general schools with high levels of disadvantage among their pupils or with a high proportion of pupils with special educational needs, are likely to have higher expenditure on teaching assistants. The EPI also found that around two-thirds of TAs are employed in primary schools, with 18 per cent in secondary schools and 15 per cent in special schools. This distribution differs somewhat from the overall distribution in pupil numbers, where approximately 57 per cent of pupils are in primary schools, 41 per cent in secondary schools, and 2 per cent in special schools.

The EPI conclude that the recent rise in TA numbers, together with evidence which suggests that the impact of TAs is only positive when they are deployed effectively by schools, could mean that ‘some settings may view reducing teaching assistants as a way of achieving efficiency savings if faced with budget pressures’.

Commenting on the EPI analysis, Deborah Lawson, general secretary of the Voice union, said: ‘We welcome the report for highlighting both how “teaching assistants play a significant role in England’s education system”, and the huge variation in school spending on TAs.’ She added: ‘Austerity-driven restructuring means skilled, dedicated and expert support staff are being lost to the system. The loss of these key staff places an additional pressure on teachers and increases their workload. The Government must increase schools’ budgets so that our valuable support staff are retained and effectively deployed, not exploited. Voice is calling on the Government to recognise and value teaching assistants, and commit to professional standards for them, supported by a national pay and conditions structure.’

Full EPI report:

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July 13, 2020 (PDF 1.94 MB)

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