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Technician staff cuts put safety at risk in schools, and the problem’s growing

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Almost a third of secondary school technicians (32%) think staff cuts are putting pupil safety at risk, according to a UNISON study published today (Friday).

The findings are from a survey of 500 technicians – who support science, IT, design and technology teachers – and highlight the importance of these specialist roles, says UNISON. Their work involves preparing equipment and materials, as well as assisting in practical lessons.

The figures are published to coincide with UNISON’s annual Stars in our Schools celebration, which highlights the contribution school support staff make to children’s education. 

Since 2013 the number of technicians in secondary schools has been cut by a sixth (16.8%), with a similar level of job losses (17%) in primary schools.* Just under a quarter (24%) of respondents said technician colleagues had left in the past year without being replaced.

The survey found the gap left by skilled technicians is being filled by a combination of teachers (37%), teaching assistants (33%) and staff ranging from caretakers and sixth form students to, in one case, the headteacher’s PA. 

The safety implications of untrained staff taking on technician duties raised concerns among just under a third (32%) of respondents. More than one in six (17%) were aware of pupils or staff being injured in lessons when non-technicians handled chemicals or specialist equipment. Just under half (47%) said the number of injuries was increasing.

Injuries ranged from the hospitalisation of a member of staff who incorrectly used the corrosive chemical hydrogen peroxide to pupils’ blazers being set alight when a supply teacher sat them too close to an experiment.  

More than three quarters (77%) said school budget cuts were having an impact on the availability and quality (74%) of equipment and resources, with some staff dipping into their own pockets to pay for supplies.

The quality of lessons was also affected, according to the survey. Two in five reported a fall in the number of practical experiments taking place – with demonstrations, group work and YouTube tutorials replacing one to one practical lessons. 

Despite the challenges, the vast majority of technicians (83%) were happy in their jobs. One said: “I love being able to create informative and fun lessons for children”, while another said: “It is great when a practical works well and you can see the children enjoying  it and ‘getting’ the science.”

UNISON head of education Jon Richards said:

“Technicians and other support staff play an important role in school life that’s often not fully appreciated.

“Without highly skilled technicians, well-meaning but unskilled colleagues are being asked to step in, sometimes risking their own safety and that of pupils and colleagues.

“Despite the challenges of falling numbers and increasing workloads, technicians love their jobs. It’s this passion – coupled with a high degree of skill – that makes them a valuable part of the school team and this should be protected.”

UNISON sent an electronic survey to staff working in technical roles in all publicly funded schools in November 2019. There were 501 responses.
*Figures are based on table 2b from the National Statistics School Workforce in England latest stats. The ‘technicians’ category includes science/lab technicians, IT, design & technology, food technology, crafts (e.g. textiles).

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