Giving a voice to the “silent army” of education support personnel

In every school teams of education support personnel work alongside teachers to ensure that all students have the opportunity of a quality education, but too often their work and contributions remain out of sight.

“In New Zealand, we often call them the silent army, they really make sure that those in education institutions can operate and children get support to learn,” said Jane Porter, who leads campaigns for the New Zealand Educational Institute – Te Riu Roa (NZEI) and is a member of the Education International (EI) Education Support Personnel (ESP) Task Force.

In Brussels, Belgium recently for a task force meeting where members focused on ways to throw the spotlight on their sector, Porter explained that because ESP are “very broad categories” of workers in education, over 200 categories in her country alone, they are integral but overlooked in the broader debate surrounding public education systems.

“Everyone knows that you go to school and you have a teacher,” she says, but ESP is an area that has developed in an ad hoc way. “It’s a group that’s evolved because of need but not because of deliberate planning.”

Noting what she referred to as the “emerging role” of ESP in helping students with special educational needs, she explained that, while some job categories, such as school psychologists, librarians or school secretaries, find it easy to fall into the education community, for others it is more challenging to find a place in that community.

“We focus narrowly on tasks, and should focus of what ESP bring to learning,” Porter stressed, insisting that the EI task force very much focuses on the angle of learning, rather than teachers. “Support staff are not here to support teachers, they are here to support education, to support learning.”

Developing a strategy

That message was clear when the task force met from 24-25 January at the EI Head Office in Brussels. The task force agreed upon its priorities, activities and working methods. It reaffirmed the need and will to highlight the tremendous work done by these professionals in providing quality education to all students.

“We strongly believe that education support personnel are vital for fulfilling the mission of education and they must be empowered to assert their rightful place in the world education community,” said EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen welcoming task force members.

Van Leeuwen insisted that ESP best contribute to the education, health and safety of students when they are part of a single unified workforce, working directly for the institutions and organisations responsible for the education of students.

“Belonging to this task force is an honour, and a great opportunity to assess, identify and elevate the role of ESP,” echoed Maury Koffman, an Executive Committee member of the National Education Association (NEA) and Chairperson of the task force.

The ESP have an essential role in achieving the sustainable development goals (SDG), especially SDG 4, as they “contribute to an environment that is favourable to quality education and, having a holistic view of the child, they educate the whole student,” he stressed, adding that schools could not operate if ESP were not part of the school environment.

Bringing ESP out of the shadows

Advocating for a “whole school, whole child, whole student approach,” Porter said that “successful learning happens with more than teachers involved.”

Recognising the preparedness of many education systems to work with ESP to really have “consistent policies on ESP,” she said. “We need well supported teachers, but we need to understand that teachers are a part, not thepart of the education workforce, and there are other roles that have to be carefully thought through and planned.”

The adoption of the Resolution on Education Support Personnel at the 7th EI World Congress in 2015 reaffirmed the importance of ESP and EI’s commitment to improving the status, rights and conditions of ESP and to increasing attention paid to the sector.

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