Building employee skills capacity - focusing on support staff

One of the corner stones of effective capacity building in organisations is the provision of quality and timely staff training which is tailored as far as possible to the employee’s individual needs in their role. IEUA VicTas Assistant Secretary Cathy Hickey explores how schools fare here, and who is being provided with training opportunities.

There has quite rightly been a significant focus in the last decade on building leadership skills in education – of both principals and the broader leadership team, and an improving focus on more distributive forms of leadership. The requirement for greater knowledge and capacity to manage the growing legal obligations on schools – legal liability, negligence, compliance, child protection legislation – presents one of the largest areas of professional development focus for this group.

Teachers have been subject to rising expectation to deliver greater student focused learning, particularly ‘individualised’. Behaviour management and building knowledge and skills in disability and other special needs areas, such as in autism, are still top areas of professional demand. Building ICT skills has also been an ongoing area of focus.

But what of our school support staff?

The growth in numbers of support staff has been a key demographic change in staffing in Australian schools over the last decade. The numbers of learning support staff in primary schools, for example, has been growing steadily, and the diversity of roles and actual numbers of staff in secondary school has almost doubled. The growth in independent schools is particularly significant.

Classification structures for school support staff – be they developed through enterprise bargaining agreements, or those relying simply on the modern award for general education employees – are under constant focus, with unions seeking to modernise them and ensure a fairer and more accurate valuing of the work of this growing sector of the education workforce.

Classification structures for school support staff need to both reflect the duties, capacities, judgement and decision making responsibilities, qualifications and experience of employees. A classification structure that is clear and based on the jobs people are actually doing can assist in the provision of better career path opportunities and assist with professional development focus.

For learning support staff there is a clear cry for much greater professional development in special education.

Quality training opportunities

The provision of training opportunities
for support staff forms a very patchy picture – not just across schools, but
across occupational groups in the
support staff area.

Like its counterparts in the other states and territories, IEUA VicTas has been focusing on enhancing its own training opportunities for school support members of the Union. To get a better understanding of the training needs of this group of school staff and the training opportunities they access in their schools, the Union ran a survey focused specifically on this area.

Training needs survey

The IEUA VicTas ran the survey of its education support staff members in Victorian and Tasmanian Catholic
and independent schools to obtain a detailed picture of their training experiences and needs.

Approximately 350 members responded to the survey across all occupational groupings, including learning support, clerical and administration, laboratory and library staff. One of the positive results was that the survey revealed a significant majority of members had participated in some employer provided training over the last three years (learning support respondents 84%, clerical 71%, library 71% and lab 100%). However, while almost 80% of that group of lab and library members receive some training each year, only 59% of clerical and 63% of learning support staff participate in some training each year. Of concern to the Union was the significant percentage of those who had requested training over the last three years but had been refused. While some of those who had not accessed training opportunities had not requested training, for a range of reasons, approximately half of the learning support and clerical members, and 40% of library members in the ‘no training’ category had requested training and been refused. Ensuring that all staff have access to quality training opportunities is a very important aspect of schools maintaining quality service provision.All staff in Victorian Catholic schools, for example, should be having their Annual Review Meetings (ARMs) which have the express aim of identifying training needs, and schools should be providing access to quality training opportunities every year. The Tasmanian Catholic Agreement, for example, has a specific entitlement for education support staff to ‘regular, relevant and negotiated professional development’. Independent schools should be providing at least the same opportunities for their staff.

While the quality of the training received was identified as sufficient by approximately 80% across all groupings, the percentage identifying the training as sufficient for their needs was much lower (learning support 51%, clerical 63%, library 48%, and lab 57%).

Types of training needs identified

The survey asked members to identify their top training needs, and this is broken down by percentage in the table below. It comes as no surprise that the highest area of need is in the job specific area, but the results show some interesting differences as well.

For learning support staff there is a clear cry for much greater professional development in special education – autism, intellectual disability, severe language disorder, and also in student-related learning skills. Working with challenging student behaviours and numeracy and literacy were also highly ranked.

For clerical staff, the survey highlights the incredible diversity of roles that come under this grouping – finance, VCAL/VET areas, marketing, human resources including compliance, legal liability and staff management responsibilities, high level publication and communication roles, and responsibilities in other key areas of management support.

The survey has assisted the Union to refresh the range of training activities for its education support members based on their identified needs, including preferred modes of delivery, etc. The Union encourages non government employers to do the same for their staff to ensure all staff have access to training that meets their professional needs.