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School staff ‘in Wales paying for pupils’ food and clothing’

25 Nov 2023 5 minute read
Photo Liam McBurney PA Wire

Martin Shipton

School support staff across Wales are using their own money to help pay for pupils’ food and clothing, even though many are struggling to cope with the cost-of-living crisis themselves, according to their trade union.

A survey of more than 800 school workers undertaken by Unison reveals that staff – including teaching assistants, caterers, and cleaners – are buying food, clothes and stationery for their hard-up pupils.

The findings have been released to coincide with Stars in our Schools, Unison’s annual celebration of school support staff, which is being marked in schools across the UK..

The report paints a picture of workers going above and beyond to assist pupils from deprived backgrounds, despite having their own financial worries. Over a third (37%) had helped with food or packed lunches, 35% had helped with uniform costs, and 25% with books and stationery.

However, almost all the school employees (98%) surveyed say they fear their pay isn’t enough to cover their own spiralling bills and other household costs.

Food banks

One in six workers (17%) have used food banks in the past year, and more than two-fifths (46%) say they’ve had to borrow money to stay afloat financially.

Top of their concerns is being able to pay for heating and eating. Nine in 10 (90%) support staff said they worried they wouldn’t have enough money to pay their energy bills, with a similar percentage (91%) worried about food costs.

To try and save cash, half of those who responded (49%) are limiting the use of their oven, while over two-thirds (71%) were simply not using their heating at all.

The survey found that financial pressures are forcing lots of employees to take on extra work, with many considering quitting education for better-paid jobs elsewhere.

A third (33%) had taken a second or third job and more than half (54%) are looking for more lucrative roles. Those wanting to get out of the school sector said they are eyeing up jobs in administration, hospitality and retail.


Unison is warning that an exodus of support staff would put even more pressure on the colleagues left behind. The survey found that over half (57%) of staff already do unpaid overtime every week.

The report lays bare the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on pupils and their families, says Unison. As well as more children showing signs of neglect and turning up to school hungry, staff also reported an increase in the number of parents needing financial and emotional support.

Unison Cymru schools lead Rosie Lewis said: “Even though school staff in Wales are not well-off themselves, they’re still doing what they can for their pupils. Their generosity and dedication are to be applauded, but it is truly shocking that employees struggling to make ends meet are having to bail out less fortunate families.

“This can’t continue. The report identifies thousands of staff who are being attracted to jobs in retail and hospitality, with less responsibility and better pay.

“But support staff are vital to the smooth running of schools and the experiences of pupils. Their pay should better reflect the invaluable support they provide.”

Key priority

A spokesperson for the Welsh Government responded: “Ensuring all our school children fulfil their potential is a key priority for this government and we have a number of policies in place to help ensure none of our school children go hungry or go without the essentials required for schools.

“Last year, our schools essentials grant helped over 100,000 children from families on lower incomes with school costs. The grant can be used to pay for school uniform, including coats and shoes, school activities, like learning a musical instrument, sports kit and equipment for after school activities, and classroom essentials, like pens, pencils and bags.

“All primary school children in Wales will get free school meals by 2024, as part of our cooperation agreement with Plaid Cymru, and in response to the rising cost of living pressures. We continue to offer free breakfasts to pupils in maintained primary schools.

“It is deeply concerning to hear that school support staff are paying from their own pockets. School support staff pay and conditions are a matter for individual employers, whether this is the school or the local authority. The authority, as the employer of its own staff, is responsible for the decisions it makes regarding the terms and conditions of employment. The Welsh Government has no authority to intervene in such matters.”

The spokesperson pointed out that families on lower incomes and who receive certain benefits can claim £125 per child per year to help with school costs. Because of the extra cost families might face when their children start secondary school, £200 is available for pupils going into year 7.

Pay negotiations at the National Joint Council between unions and employers for local authority staff across England and Wales, including school support staff, have recently concluded with an increase of £1,925 (equating to 9.42% for the lowest paid staff) payable from April 1 2023.

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