‘Worn out’ teaching assistant quits after more than a decade as wages fall and responsibilities rise

Jessica Sim

A teaching assistant who joined the profession after the loss of her own child is leaving in the face of low wages and rising responsibilities.

Jessica Sim (pictured above) left a career in retail 11 years ago and made a commitment to work in schools and help the development of children after the loss of her own daughter at just 12 days old.

But, after more than a decade working as a support officer in schools, low pay and ‘constant tiredness’ have forced the teaching assistant from Bridgend to look elsewhere for employment.

Jessica is a member of UNISON, which represents thousands of public sector staff across Wales and throughout the UK, and recently addressed a conference of Local Government workers to explain her decision.

She warned the numbers of teaching assistants also considering leaving could have a devastating impact on children and said: “I’ve worked as a support officer in schools for the past 11 years, since I lost my little girl, eight of which have been in a special school.

“During COVID-19 our schools would not have been able to function without the support staff, we were the ones running the ‘day care’ and education, we had to learn a different way of teaching and supporting colleagues and pupils.

“Most of our pupils unfortunately did not understand what was going on due to their additional needs.

“Yes, we had the support of the senior leadership team, but it was still hard-going.

“We were all putting ourselves at risk and at one point some schools were close to closing due to COVID levels.”

Over the past two years Jessica has had to take on five additional jobs as well as working in an after-school club just to survive and pay her bills.

She said: “I am constantly tired.

“I am leaving to pursue a career in learning disabilities nursing, as I am worn out and tired of effectively doing the job of a teacher and, in some cases, nurse on the salary of a teaching assistant.

“It isn’t just me, so many of my colleagues are feeling the same.  Unfortunately, so many talented and dedicated people will be leaving the profession which will sadly have a devastating impact on all of our children. This is why our teaching assistants deserve a decent wage, and recognition for their work.”

Helen Huelin, UNISON Cymru/Wales regional organiser, said: “It is completely unacceptable that low wages and rising demands on the roles of school support staff are now leading to loss of workers with years of valuable experience.

“Teaching assistants are only paid during term times, and they take home as little as £13,000 per year, so many like Jessica are forced into taking on several additional jobs to make ends meet.

“A recent survey of UNISON members found that more than 45% of school support staff in Wales were actively looking for better paid jobs because of the rising cost of living and persistent low pay in education.

“UNISON fights for the rights of all public sector workers and we will always do everything we can to defend the terms and conditions of all those who provide such a vital service.”

UNISON is working in social partnership with the Welsh Government to develop updated job descriptions for teaching assistants in Wales and to carry out international research to compare the pay of teaching assistants in Wales to countries of a similar size and educational system.

More than 60 teaching assistants recently attended a webinar run by the union to update them on the work UNISON is doing in social partnership with Welsh Government to improve the role of teaching assistants in Wales.

UNISON is also encouraging every governing body in Wales to identify an individual to take on the newly created role of ‘Champion for Teaching Assistants Governor’.