Friday 9 February is Champions in Our Colleges Day, when UNISON celebrates the role of support staff in further education.
Support staff are often hidden behind the scenes and their roles are diverse: from teaching assistants to cleaners to IT support staff. Without them, colleges would stop running.
Maxine Young is a development and skills coach at Tyne Coast College, where she has worked for the last 13 years. Maxine says she’s stayed in the job so long because she finds it rewarding.
“I work with young people who don’t always know what they want to do with their life, and I help them get a start with it. It’s so good when you see students achieving in all aspects of their education and then going on to find employment, especially those with special educational needs.”
Maxine takes enormous pride in the work that she does, but believes it isn’t valued by the government. “Colleges play an extremely important role across the country, we’re nurturing the next generation of workers, but we’re undervalued and understaffed,” she says.
“We’ve had so many major issues with pay over the years – we get one excuse after the other about why the government can’t afford a pay rise for us, and now we’ve got recruitment problems as a result.
“On top of pay problems, college workers are dealing with restructures every year. Year in, year out, we don’t know if our jobs are safe. Not only do we feel undervalued by the government, we feel undervalued in our own workplaces. People are leaving the sector because they can’t afford to stay.”
This, Maxine says, is why Champions in Our Colleges is so important.
“It helps the public understand the work that we do and the difference we can make to students’ lives and their entry into the workforce.
“This is made even more important by the fact that the UK currently has a skills shortage and we are the fundamental people to transfer those crucial skills to young people and adult learners.
“I just want the public to understand: if you’re supporting us, you’re also supporting their future.”
Challenging working conditions
Gavin Cartwright has worked at South and City College in Birmingham for 17 years, where he currently manages an IT team across two sites.
For Gavin, Champions in Our Colleges is about valuing support staff. “The IT people, the teaching assistants and the people who organise all the exams are massively undervalued, not just by the college itself but also by the wider public,” he says.
In almost two decades at the college, he has witnessed working conditions become more challenging for support staff, while wages stagnate.
“Even though I’ve been promoted from a technician to a supervisor, I’ve lost around 30-40% of my wage since 2010. And we’re a lot shorter staffed than we should be. Yet we always do our best to try and look after the students.”
Gavin says he’s had several students approach him to talk about their mental health, or disclose physical or psychological abuse at home.
“I wish the public understood that, a lot of the time, students who are struggling or have got something going on in their personal lives will often go and talk to a support staff worker, not their teacher. I’m an IT technician, I’m in and out of classrooms and people recognise me and feel safe with me.”
As branch secretary of Birmingham Colleges UNISON, Gavin is preparing to lead his branch in another round of pay negotiations. He hopes the union’s efforts to raise the public profile of support workers will help with pay negotiations.
“We’re struggling to recruit support staff and the reason is pay. If we understood, as a society, how important support staff are, we wouldn’t be in a situation where the bottom three bands of support staff will be on the minimum wage in April. The reality is, if we don’t have cleaners, we have a filthy site. Nobody appreciates that.”
The deadline for nominations is Friday 9 February.