UK: Survey finds unpaid overtime common among school support staff

A survey of more than 15,000 school support staff by the trade union Unison has highlighted widespread concern over low pay and high workloads. The survey, published in November 2014, revealed that almost three-quarters of respondents regularly worked unpaid overtime. Unison is pursuing the issues raised by the survey with the Department for Education.

On 27 November 2014, the trade union Unison published findings from a survey of its school support staff members (727 KB PDF). According to the union, the survey results revealed a ‘dedicated but demoralised workforce … While they loved their job, they also felt very undervalued’. In particular, the survey showed high levels of concern among school support staff about low pay, workload, unpaid overtime, stress and lack of training and development opportunities.

About the survey

Unison carried out the survey in the autumn of 2014, with the aim of monitoring workplace issues and highlighting the key concerns and priorities of school support staff.

According to the union, this was the biggest ever survey of school support staff, receiving over 15,400 responses. School support staff carry out a wide range of roles. The majority of respondents worked as teaching assistants or classroom assistants (60.6%) but other roles were also well represented. These included administrators, technicians, behaviour management practitioners, caretakers and janitors, catering staff, cleaning staff, cover supervisors, examinations staff, finance staff, ICT staff, invigilators, learning mentors, librarians, library assistants, midday supervisors, nursery nurses, parent support advisers, pupil well-being management officers, school attendance officers and school business managers.

The respondents were predominantly (88%) women. A majority (59.5%) of respondents worked in community schools, with 23.7% working in academies and 7.7% working in trust/foundation schools. A small number of responses (3.3%) were received from free schools, which according to Unison was ‘interesting in itself’ as many of these new schools have not yet recognised unions.

Key findings

Job satisfaction

A majority (80.6%) of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they loved their job. But when asked whether they felt valued, the proportion who said yes dropped to 48.1%, and 28.2% either disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were valued.


Some 89% of respondents said they were concerned about low pay. Over half (58%) were on term-time only contracts.

Among the effects of low pay were that:

  • 16.3% of respondents depended on a second job to make ends meet. Second jobs included supermarket and other retail roles, working as a waiter/waitress, hotel and bar work, working in call centres, child minding and residential care work;
  • 17.2% were in receipt of state benefits to supplement their wages;
  • 20.5% were carrying significant levels of debt, ranging from GBP 5,000 (€6,900 as at 1 March 2015) to GBP 20,000 (€27,625), while 6.7% said they had debts of more than GBP 20,000;
  • 22.2% of respondents borrowed money from friends and family over the past two years, 17.3% had to take out a bank loan and 3.9% had resorted to a payday loan.

Workload and unpaid overtime

Over four-fifths (80.4%) of respondents said they were concerned about workload. Almost three-quarters (74.0%) said they regularly worked unpaid overtime. Of these, 81.0% said they were forced to do so as a result of increasing workloads while the rest said they voluntarily did unpaid overtime.

Written comments from respondents quoted in the Unison survey report highlighted the pressure of increasing management expectations, pupil needs, budget cuts and job insecurity as key factors driving unpaid overtime.

Work-related stress

Over half (53.3%) of respondents reported that they felt significant levels of stress in the job: 29.3% said they felt stressed ‘half the time they were at work’ and 23.4% said they felt stressed ‘most of’ or ‘all the time’). The most widely cited reason was the pressure of workload and lack of time to complete their tasks.

Other significant causes of stress included being asked to carry out duties without appropriate training or support, pupil indiscipline, lack of support and job insecurity. Nearly 70% of respondents were concerned about job security, with cuts to budgets being felt in schools.

Training and development opportunities

Lack of access to training and development was also a significant concern for school support staff, with 64.4% of respondents saying they were worried about training and development opportunities.

Almost half (49.3%) of respondents said they had only 1–3 days of training in the past year, and nearly a quarter (24.4%) said they had no training at all.

Reaction to the findings

Commenting on the findings, Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis said:

School support staff are the backbone of every school and play a vital role in educating our children. They are being given more responsibilities and managerial titles but their pay and conditions do not reflect this. Many are being paid just above the minimum wage, which is simply not acceptable for the amount of work and responsibility they have. Our members in schools help nine million pupils in 30,000 schools across the UK every day. They make a significant contribution to the ability of students to learn, and for teachers to teach, but they are a forgotten workforce, mostly ignored by this government. We desperately need school support workers to have their responsibilities recognised in their pay and conditions, with permanent contracts and decent conditions.

Talks underway on school support staff’s workload

Unison has raised concerns over school support staff workload issues with the government on a number of occasions and on 17 December 2014 announced that the Department for Education had agreed to discussions with the three unions that represent school support staff – Unison, Unite and GMB. The union said it was ‘very pleased that the department has accepted our case that workload is an issue for school support staff as well as for teachers. Our surveys have shown some groups of school support staff also work excessive unpaid overtime and their issues also need addressing'. Initial discussions were due to begin in early 2015.

The unions are pressing for the re-establishment of the Schools Support Staff Negotiating Body, set up by the last Labour government but abolished by the present coalition government. Labour’s education spokesperson, Tristram Hunt, has said that the party will re-establish the negotiating body if it forms the next government.


Unpaid overtime is a growing issue within the public sector more widely as public expenditure cuts take effect and staff reductions mean fewer staff with heavier workloads. In 2014, the Trades Union Congress (TUC)  published an analysis of official statistics showing that unpaid overtime had become more common in the public sector than the private sector. In 2013, more than a quarter (27.4%) of public sector staff worked at least one hour of unpaid overtime per week, up from 24.8% in 2003. The average amount of unpaid overtime done by these staff was 7 hours 42 minutes per week. In the private sector, 18.1% of staff did unpaid overtime in 2013, compared to 18% in 2003, and they worked on average 7 hours 48 minutes’ unpaid overtime per week – a substantial increase from the 2003 average of 7 hours.

According to the TUC, the increase in unpaid overtime across the public sector over the last decade reflects the fact that more women are working extra hours without being paid. In 2003 a smaller proportion of women (24.3%) in the public sector did unpaid overtime than men (25.8%). By 2013, women had overtaken men with a 3.9 percentage point increase in the numbers doing unpaid overtime – to 28.2%. The proportion of men doing unpaid overtime has barely changed in the last decade (up 0.1 percentage points to 25.9%).

The TUC believes that some of the increase in unpaid overtime reflects the ‘professionalism and commitment of staff who want to provide decent services’, but that there is also ‘evidence of bullying and excessive management pressure in some workplaces’.

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