Support staff (known internationally as educational support personnel) are crucial to well-functioning, safe schools and help to provide quality education.
However, the widespread closure of schools as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has meant many support staff jobs have been threatened or lost. Education unions around the world are working tirelessly to protect support staff jobs and to advocate for long lasting improvements to their employment conditions.
Educational International, the global federation of education unions from around the world, hosted an online meeting to recognise World Education Support Personnel Day 2020.
This meeting enabled union leaders around the world to share their experiences of defending support staff rights as well as share successful strategies and lessons learned. The aim was to make our movement stronger and better able to serve the support staff we represent.
It also provided an opportunity to celebrate the unsung heroes who make it possible for school students to have a good education and learn in safe environments and for teachers to work in safe environments.
The online meeting celebrated the important work support staff do and aimed to become a show of unity as support staff fight to ensure terms and conditions are upheld and improved in line with the important work they do.
Seven countries shared their stories, and the spotlight: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Spain, the United States and Zimbabwe. Union leaders from around the world shared their experiences of defending the rights of support staff. These reports focused on how to make the movement stronger. Interpreters were provided, as were translations of written comments.
Adverse impact of coronavirus
Data gathered through an Education International survey of member organisations reveals many support staff have experienced loss of pay, loss of jobs and loss of hours. They are becoming one of the most vulnerable groups of workers within education around the world.
A common thread across all speakers was the disproportionate and adverse impact the crisis is having on support staff, highlighting their already vulnerable status within education. They have been subjected to stand downs, terminations, loss of hours and have even been expected to keep working in risky situations, often without access to personal protective equipment or recourse to work, health and safety provisions. They have been required to work in new ways and adapt with little training, support or recognition.
Rising to the occasion
Stories from around the world also highlighted the dedication and professionalism many support staff have shown in meeting new demands and using both their skills and school resources to deliver social support to those in need within the broader community. Support staff have provided food, acted as community liaisons across sectors including aged care, set up technology hubs for access to remote teaching and learning, and developed and delivered learning resources so school could continue.
So far 2020 has been a different and difficult time for everyone around the world. People have been confined to their homes so groups and societies have had to connect through other means: working, learning and socialising mainly through the internet.
The importance of support staff all around the world is undeniable, especially over the past few months as school closures have rolled out across most countries. So many support staff have gone the extra mile to make life easier for teachers, students and children and their communities and families. They deserve our support in return.