School Support Staff - Collectively Making Resources Count

Publication Details

In this project, the Support Staff Working Group’s brief was to consider what could be done, within current school management and funding arrangements, to optimise the efficiency and effectiveness of the support staff workforce in contributing to learning outcomes for students. Current policy setting with regard to the funding of support staff was outside the terms of reference for this project.

This report of the Working Group is centrally about the characteristics of support staff in New Zealand schools and about management capability and practices in schools with respect to the employment of support staff.

Author(s): Education Workforce, Schooling

Date Published: July 2011

Executive Summary

This is the second report of the Support Staff Workforce Working Group.

In the first phase of the Working Group’s programme, the Working Group developed a phrase “collectively making resources count” to describe the goal of utilising the support staff resource to support the achievement of education outcomes for students. The phrase had as its basis that the productivity of support staff cannot be considered in isolation from teaching and leadership staff in schools and the functions they perform. It is essentially about the utilisation of all resources to further educational outcomes.

The Working Group also recognised from general concepts of productivity that “the way people are treated and managed is of fundamental importance to workplace productivity”1.

The Working Group concluded in Phase One that there was insufficient knowledge of the nature of support staff and the way that they are managed to provide a basis for talking about current, emerging and successful practice in respect of support staff. The Working Group resolved that Phase Two of the work programme should address this deficit and, based on the knowledge gained, make recommendations about actions that could be taken to make the support staff resource count. 

The Working Group engaged researchers to develop case studies to illustrate some existing good practice and carried out surveys of principals and support staff to elicit information about support staff and current practice in their management. The case studies illustrate that some schools are advanced in “collectively making resources count”. In these schools, support staff are increasingly viewed as integral to the teaching and learning focus of the school. The schools’ recruitment and management practices are designed to ensure that support staff enable the school to be the sort of school they want to be.  The Working Group was drawn to this anecdote quoted in productivity literature:

"When President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters in the early 1960s he passed a janitor who was mopping the floor. The President asked him what he was doing and the janitor responded, ‘Helping to put a man on the moon, Mr. President.’”

The Working Group wondered how many support staff, asked the same question, would answer, “Helping to achieve educational outcomes for students.” How many principals would convey to support staff that that is what they are doing?  Some principals in our case study schools clearly have a view of support staff that integrates them with the teaching staff in the achievement of the school’s vision for itself.  We would expect that, alongside good management practices, this approach would facilitate high levels of productivity.

Our surveys did not set out specifically to elicit the extent to which schools had an integrated view of teachers and support staff, but they asked very specific questions about management practices in schools with regard to support staff.  Ideally, management practices with support staff would mirror good practice with teaching staff, though there are clearly some characteristics of support staff employment which mean this equivalency can be challenging to achieve.

The surveys showed that management practice varies greatly.  A number of our case studies show evidence of increasingly professional management of support staff over one or more areas that are important and in line with practices that are expected with regard to teachers.

However, there is also much evidence that there are opportunities for many schools to improve their practices and facilitate and shape the performance of support staff to better effect.  The Working Group agrees with support staff when they say that inadequate practices with regard to support staff indicate that their capacity to contribute is undervalued.

On the basis of our research, it seems that overwhelmingly, support staff in New Zealand schools are strongly attached to their jobs.  A high proportion of support workers who responded to the surveys loved their jobs despite some consistently expressed drawbacks to the jobs.  The major source of that job satisfaction, that is their sense of pleasure in working with young people and contributing to their learning,means that they are highly motivated to make a difference in their schools.

The high level of job satisfaction expressed came as something of a surprise to the Working Group, since anecdotal evidence has suggested that the workforce is a somewhat dissatisfied one.

For some support staff, lack of professional development and career progression opportunities were sources of dissatisfaction that are relevant to the terms of reference of the Working Group.

Issues of pay and job security, which are outside the scope of the terms of reference of the Working Group, were also raised by support staff respondents as concerns.  Some comments suggest that sometimes these concerns relate to the school boards’, principals’ and support staff’s understanding of the range of employment arrangements that are available to support staff.  This is an area where greater understanding is needed at school level and this forms Recommendation 5.

The Working Group regards the issue of being respected, valued and supported as critical to the central concern of the group’s work, that is, “What are the keys to ensuring that the support staff workforce is a highly productive one?”

Comments from support staff indicated that they did not always feel appropriately valued within their schools and that they are the outsiders in an ‘us / them’ culture. This issue appears to be one that is frequently discussed within support staff circles and one that many principals acknowledge as causing concern to support staff.

Principals on the whole displayed a high degree of awareness of the concerns of support staff. Many had made significant efforts to be inclusive and to have management processes and systems that ensure the contribution of support staff is optimised and valued.  Nevertheless, there was evidence from support staff responses that sometimes the ‘walk’ was not fully consistent with the ‘talk’.

At the same time, there were comments from principals in their survey responses indicating that some support staff found change somewhat challenging and that it was difficult to introduce new ways of doing things or a change of focus in their roles.

Both principals and support staff indicated that the ways teachers and support staff (particularly teacher aides and specialist staff providing classroom and curriculum support) work together is a critical issue in thinking about the effectiveness of support staff.  Teachers were not surveyed as part of the Working Group’s research and the teachers’ perspective remains a gap in the Working Group’s understanding.

Recommendations 9–11 within this report relate to seeking improvements in the ways teachers and support staff work together. They variously involve actions by the Ministry, NZEI Te Riu Roa, NZSTA and by schools themselves.

Our research points to a general need for better induction of support staff and more attention to creating meaningful professional development for support staff even in the absence of appropriate, formally established courses.  As well, it is evident that some schools need to improve communication processes to better inform support staff and to improve practices so that they are more inclusive of support staff.

The support staff survey results indicate that the support staff workforce includes individuals whose qualifications and experience suggest that they have a greater contribution to make than is utilised. Although the nature of some of their roles give an appearance of impermanence, our data showed that many support staff had been employed in their current schools or in the school sector for an extended number of years.

Very few principals in our survey expressed any concerns about their ability to recruit people to support staff positions. In the economic climate expected to prevail over the next few years as New Zealand recovers from the recession, it seems likely that most recruitment needs will be reasonably easily met. This climate may provide principals with more choice when they recruit.

Schools’ ability to retain good support staff is likely to rest in large part on their ability to manage them professionally and to make them feel respected and valued for the skills, attributes and commitment they can bring to the positions.

The Working Group’s brief was to consider, within the existing model of self-managing schools and current funding arrangements, what strategies could optimise the effective use of support staff in supporting teaching and learning. On the basis of the research undertaken, the Working Group has concluded that there is no necessity for new, large-scale, centrally mandated initiatives throughout schools to improve the benefits to schools and students from the support staff workforce.

Rather, the Ministry, NZEI Te Riu Roa and NZSTA should review the support and advice they give to schools currently, and incorporate the consideration of what constitutes effective management of support staff within current initiatives and documentation.  There should also be further investigation of the range and availability of relevant professional development and training currently undertaken by support staff with a view to extending the provision which schools can provide or access. (Recommendation 12–14)

The Working Group believes that, mostly, the productivity of support staff is in the hands of school management and support staff themselves.  Principals and support staff can draw on the collective capacity of their peers and their supporting bodies and on their professional development experiences to build the practices that will lead to productive systems in their schools.

Over time, “small differences in rates of productivity growth compound, like interest in a bank account”2.  There are many drivers of productivity and the practice of some of them has been explored in our research.  Increasing productivity is not an ‘all or nothing’ approach.  Schools can assess what it is they do well and where they can improve.  Attention to any one driver is likely to see greater productivity gains than if nothing is done.

The Working Group acknowledges that principals have a challenge in finding the balance between focusing on pedagogical and administrative matters to create a whole-of-school system that optimises outcomes.  However, when principals work to improve the effectiveness of support staff by ensuring that systems and practices exist to enhance their ability to both contribute directly and to support teachers and leaders, this is different from the principals doing work that is more appropriately done by support staff themselves.  The Working Group recommends that the Kiwi Leadership model and the professional development of principals and aspiring principals should incorporate consideration of the strategic management of support staff. (Recommendations 15–16)

The challenge for schools is, in essence, the same challenge facing very many workplaces in New Zealand.  International data on labour force productivity shows that New Zealand has a below average performance in a global sense.  We know that New Zealanders work hard, but our levels of productivity,compared internationally, indicate that we are not ‘working smart’ to the extent that we need to.  

All workplaces face the same issues of trying to maximise the outcomes achieved for the inputs used, no matter what the desired outcome is.  Concepts of productivity will apply to schools as much as to other workplaces and are as urgently needed there as elsewhere in the economy.

The Working Group has concluded that there is room for the Ministry of Education to improve its practice in that it needs to more consciously take account of the support staff workforce in its planning of initiatives that affect schools, of the impact such initiatives could have on the roles of support staff and how changes arising from the initiatives will require support staff input. (Recommendation 18)

The Working Group considers that it is likely that a gap exists in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) preparation of teachers relating to their capability to make effective use of teacher aides in their classrooms and makes a recommendation to explore options for addressing the gap. (Recommendation 14)The Working Group urges that this report be published so that schools — principals, teachers and support staff — have the opportunity to think about the implications of our findings for their practice. (Recommendations 2–7)

The Working Group also urges that a full research report be produced by the Ministry’s Research Group for publication. It also advises that based on this report and the fuller research report, a resource could be developed for whole-of-school professional development. (Recommendations 3–7)

The Working Group considers it will be beneficial if the Ministry of Education, NZEI Te Riu Roa and NZSTA continue to work together to develop complementary and shared work programmes to continue to build and assist with the overall productivity of the support staff workforce. (Recommendation 21)


1. The Workplace Productivity Challenge: Summary of the Report of the Workplace Productivity Working Group, August 2004, page 17

2. Ibid, page 13

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