Learning more about support staff in schools: Results from surveys of principals & support staff members

Publication Details

This research report presents results from surveys of principals and school support staff members carried out in late 2010 in a random sample of schools. It complements an earlier report School Support Staff: Collectively Making Resources Count (May 2011), produced by the Support Staff Working Group. The Working Group was established as a shared initiative between the New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA), the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa (NZEI), and the Ministry of Education. Through a process of consultation and research this tripartite Working Group sought, among other things, to 'identify and assess whether there are potential workforce issues which are seen to hinder the effective use of support staff'.

Author(s): Research Division

Date Published: December 2011

Executive Summary

Surveys of principals and support staff in a random sample of schools were conducted in late 2010. Data from the surveys showed that among both participating principals and support staff members there was considerable overall satisfaction regarding the work and roles of support staff members in New Zealand schools. There were many very positive views expressed about the contributions that support staff make to the day-to-day running of the school and to achieving good learning outcomes for students, and about what it is like to work in a support staff position within a school.

However, at the same time, helpful information was obtained which indicates where issues and concerns in relation to support staff may be most likely to occur. Participants' feedback yielded suggestions for steps that schools and others could consider when seeking to address identified issues or concerns, and when wishing to capitalise more effectively on the potential of support staff members to further help schools improve learning outcomes for students.

Report Outline

This report complements the May 2011 reportSchool Support Staff: Collectively Making Resources Countproduced by the Support Staff Working Group. The Working Group was established as a shared initiative between the New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA), the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa (NZEI) and the Ministry of Education. Its aim was to gain knowledge and understanding regarding support staff in schools. The findings have been presented so as to showcase the on-the-job experiences and views of support staff in a variety of roles. As much as possible, this has been done using the participants' own words. Principal views on the contributions made by support staff in schools are also discussed. In broad terms, the present report contains the following:

  • 'Highlight Findings' - a summary overview of key findings from the surveys of principals and support staff;
  • a description of the study: its purpose, participants, and what led to the study;
  • support staff accounts of what they do to help their school operate effectively and efficiently, and to achieve good learning outcomes for students;
  • support staff views on the 'best things' about their positions;
  • principals' views on support staff, including perspectives on the extent to which support staff were being used in the best ways in their school to support leadership and teaching staff achieve optimal learning outcomes for students;
  • challenges identified by principals in ensuring that support staff are used in ways that best support teaching and leadership staff to achieve optimal learning outcomes for students;
  • issues, concerns and challenges associated with their roles and responsibilities identified by support staff overall;
  • issues, concerns and challenges specifically in relation to teacher aides from the perspectives of both principals and teacher aides;
  • suggestions for positive change offered by participants.

Highlight Findings

"I think every position in the school, regardless of what that job is, adds to the success of the school and therefore learning outcomes for the students as a whole. It is a team effort." Executive officer (secondary school)


"They are all valuable staff members and are willing to support everyone."
Principal (primary school)

Key findings from the surveys of principals and support staff members are listed below under relevant headings.

Support Staff Responsibilities

Support staff in schools carry out a very wide range of tasks and responsibilities on a daily basis. These include:

  • administrative and financial tasks;
  • providing direct back-up support for principals and other leadership staff;
  • being a 'welcoming face' for all parents and visitors to the school;
  • helping prepare school newsletters and notices and maintaining the school website;
  • ensuring provision of resources for use in the classroom;
  • developing and maintaining assessment and attendance databases and IT systems and procedures;
  • ensuring that the school facilities are in good order.

Support staff also:

  • handle a great variety of student enquiries and requests;
  • provide support and back-up for students and teachers both in the classroom and in the school as a whole;
  • maintain well-functioning library and information retrieval systems;
  • ensure that science laboratories and other practicum learning areas within the school are safe and appropriately set-up and resourced for each teaching–learning situation.

Support staff in schools carry out a very wide range of tasks and responsibilities on a daily basis. These include:

  • administrative and financial tasks;
  • providing direct back-up support for principals and other leadership staff;
  • being a 'welcoming face' for all parents and visitors to the school;
  • helping prepare school newsletters and notices and maintaining the school website;
  • ensuring provision of resources for use in the classroom;
  • developing and maintaining assessment and attendance databases and IT systems and procedures;
  • ensuring that the school facilities are in good order.

As well, support staff:

  • care for students when they are unwell;
  • administer first aid;
  • reinforce a school's policies and procedures for behaviour;
  • follow-up on students who are absent from school;
  • provide a link between students, parents and teaching staff;
  • encourage and support students in extra-curricular achievements through sports and other activities;
  • provide careers advice and guidance, including arranging for students to have real-life work experiencetake responsibility for specialised projects, according to particular needs or priorities nominated by the school.

Positive Views and Experiences of and about Support Staff Roles

Overall, among survey participants, there was a high level of positivity expressed about the work, roles and responsibilities of support staff in schools, from both principals and support staff members themselves.

Key reasons given by support staff for feeling positive about their roles included:

  • being able to work with and support the work of teachers and school leadership staff;
  • being able to work with and support students in their learning and achievement and in other aspects of their lives;
  • enjoying the variety and daily challenges that are integral to a school environment;
  • being a valued member of the school's staff and respected for their particular contributions;
  • enjoying the interaction with a wide variety of people;
  • having paid employment with conditions of work that fitted well with other demands in their lives - for example, being able to work part-time, having school holidays free to spend with their families, having some flexibility in when they worked their allocated hours during a week, having a position that was close to home;
  • the satisfaction that comes from making a difference within their school and community.

In the case of principals , reasons for being positive about their support staff included:

  • that support staff carried out duties and responsibilities crucial to the smooth running of a school that would otherwise have to be undertaken by leadership staff and teachers, taking them away from their primary teaching and learning responsibilities within the school;
  • that support staff frequently demonstrated that they had the best interests of the school and its community at heart, often 'going beyond the call of duty' in terms of extra hours worked, tackling additional tasks beyond the scope of their immediate positions, and willingness to take part in the wider life of the school;
  • the valuable skills, attributes and personal qualities that many support staff possess, especially their ability to be flexible and adaptable, multi-task, problem-solve, and be proactive;
  • that support staff who worked with teachers and students in teaching and learning contexts provided essential support that facilitated improved learning and other outcomes for students.

Issues, Concerns, Challenges

Despite the high level of positivity overall, both principals and support staff expressed a range of issues, concerns and challenges to do with the work, responsibilities, contributions and management or supervision of support staff in general.

Issues, concerns or challenges most often identified by principals were:

  • not being able to employ support staff for sufficient hours to enable them to take on all required duties, undertake certain duties to the desired level, attend whole school staff meetings held after school, or to have paid planning time;
  • not being able to remunerate support staff at an acceptable level that reflected their skills and expertise, qualifications and commitment;
  • finding that some support staff were unwilling to change to meet changing school needs;
  • difficulties in ensuring enough time to provide regular, systematic mentoring and support for support staff rather than the more ad hoc approach which often predominated;
  • difficulties in ensuring appropriate training or professional development opportunities for some support staff when required;
  • inconsistencies in how teaching staff worked with support staff;
  • insufficient preparation by (some) teaching and other staff in the school for effectively including support staff;
  • a lack of appreciation being shown at times for the contributions or potential contributions of support staff.

Issues and challenges identified by support staff across all types of positions: in general, between a fifth and just over a quarter of participants identified various matters to do with their current role that were of concern for them. Two key ones were:

  • the school not making best use of them to help achieve good learning outcomes for students; 
  • workload issues - including too many competing demands which interfered with ability to effectively complete tasks, lack of time to tackle the amount of work and/or insufficient back-up (ie, not enough support staff colleagues to help). 

Other main issues and concerns for support staff included:

  • their ideas not being sought or listened to, and/or not being included in departmental or wider school staff planning meetings so they could contribute ideas, experiences;
  • insufficient training or professional development opportunities that were targeted to their work;
  • being left outside the communication networks in the school;
  • irregular and/or inadequate support and mentoring and insufficient feedback from leadership staff or the teachers they worked with;
  • lack of induction (information and support) or insufficient induction when first beginning their position and in the following weeks or months;
  • not being sufficiently valued in the school as a support staff member;
  • their particular skills and attributes being under-used;
  • being employed for insufficient or variable hours per week - which, depending on individual circumstances, represented a personal financial or sense of security issue, or was a source of frustration or concern when unable to provide more input for students who needed it, or to complete or tackle all the tasks that they knew needed to be done.

And for 17 percent or more of support staff participants, an underlying issue - even among those who expressed many positive views about their position, including the satisfaction that came from doing worthwhile work - was that of low rates of pay, especially in light of their level of input, and, in some cases, their particular skills and qualifications.

Issues and challenges in relation to teacher aides: there was evidence from both principals and teacher aides themselves that there were sometimes particular issues in relation to teacher aides and their roles and responsibilities. These included:

  • 'philosophical' differences in how teacher aides could or should be best used in schools and classrooms - for example, whether teacher aides are primarily to support (individual or small groups of) students, or to support a teacher's work with the class as a whole;
  • difficulties in working relationships with teachers, including teachers not preparing for the inclusion of teacher aide input into their programmes, or not communicating adequately with teacher aides about learning goals for the class as a whole and/or for individual students being worked with. Such difficulties could make it difficult for a teacher aide to know how to contribute. It also led to teacher aides sometimes being under-utilised in the classroom, or to a lack of recognition or appreciation of teacher aide contributions;
  • teacher aides not being included in planning meetings (eg, Individual Education Plan - IEP - meetings) regarding the needs of individual students that they are assigned to, making it more difficult to know how best to work with the student;
  • teacher aides not having (paid) time for lesson planning or preparing resources;
  • uncertainty about hours of work, and how long they would be employed for, especially when funding for a teacher aide's hours of work is linked to a specific student and 'lost' to a school if the student moves to another school;
  • teacher aides being asked to work with different students with assessed special needs at short notice, giving little or no time to prepare for the change;
  • teacher aides being thrown in at the deep end with some students - that is, finding themselves in a situation where they feel they do not have adequate knowledge, skills, or experience to effectively address a student's needs, especially when that student's behaviour is very challenging.

Addressing Issues and Concerns: Participant Suggestions and Positive Practices

From the feedback provided by principals , suggested 'best practice' for schools as employers of support staff included:

  • fostering a spirit of cooperation, support, and respect within the school, in which all roles are recognised, understood, and valued;
  • purposefully addressing, in all school-wide planning activities, how the input of support staff would be incorporated;
  • streamlining and regularly reviewing support staff, and all, positions in the school to ensure that they complement each other effectively;
  • providing targeted professional development opportunities as much as possible, especially for teacher aides new to their positions and for staff who need to keep up with technological advances for efficient school systems, for example;
  • in the absence of readily available external professional development opportunities, ensuring that support staff are able to receive support, mentoring and feedback from appropriate staff in the school on a regular basis;

Support staff themselves made suggestions directly related to the issues and challenges they had experienced in their positions. Closely paralleling the recommendations made by principals, their suggestions for how schools could facilitate best use of them and other support staff included:

  • developing a clearer understanding of the tasks and responsibilities carried out by support staff;
  • promoting a culture of inclusiveness within the school so that all roles are recognised and valued;
  • facilitating effective working relationships between support staff and teachers and leadership staff through appropriate systems and processes;
  • inviting support staff participation and input in planning meetings and professional learning discussions, especially those that directly impact on their work;
  • gaining a better knowledge of the skills and experience that support staff possess with a view to using their input more effectively;
  • formalising processes to ensure that support staff receive regular and effective feedback on progress, and can receive support or further training as required;
  • ensuring that support staff, particularly those who work part-time, are kept up-to-date with new information in the school and are not left out of the information loop (some participants however emphasised that this was very much a joint responsibility, with a need for support staff to also be proactive about keeping themselves well informed);
  • providing more substantive induction for new support staff, particularly those new to working in a school environment;
  • rationalising tasks and duties where possible to reduce the workload burden on many support staff.
  • ensuring that staff (teachers, support staff and others) are prepared and supported to work together effectively, and supported to adapt to necessary changes in systems and approaches within the school.

Some Concluding Comments

Results of the surveys of principals and support staff simultaneously indicate high levels of overall positivity by and about support staff in schools and the work that they do, and emphasise the importance of conclusions arrived at by the Support Staff Working Group in Phases One and Two of their programme of work.The Working Group's conclusions, which form the basis of the Recommendations presented in their report School Support Staff: Collectively Making Resources Count (May, 2011) , included a need to pay particular attention to the factors listed below, to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of support staff and help schools achieve optimal learning outcomes for students. The factors are:

  • role definition;
  • induction an training of support staff;
  • provision of guidance, feedback, support and mentoring; and, above all,
  • the nature and quality of working relationships between different staff - ie, teamwork and culture within the school.

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