Komorebi Post-Last November, I started my role as a teaching assistant in a special school to cover for a colleague who was off with sickness. This school provides education for a range of children, including those who have behavioral, developmental, and learning difficulties, such as children on the autistic spectrum. (Autism Awareness group describes autism as “a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.”). My role in the school was to support both the teacher and pupils with their class work. In special schools, teaching assistants also normally have to complete training in restraining and de-escalating pupils who become unsafe both physically and verbally.
The school is set in a beautiful woody area on the outskirts of Manchester. The interior reflects warmth and a sense of happiness. The walls are full of drawings of children outside classrooms, and bean bags next to a bookshelf filled with books. Since last year’s budget cut of £3.3billion (3,76 billion Euro), schools have had to resort to setting up fundraising projects, such as crowdfunding pledge to help their school get by. This has added stress to the already long list of responsibilities for schools, including making sure a child’s social and emotional needs are met, and satisfying government inspections (called OFSTED inspections). Schools in the UK are either privately funded or mainstream. Private schools rely on the money raised through families paying tuition fees, whereas mainstream schools get their funding through the government. This funding is essential as it allows schools to recruit staff, buy new equipment, classroom resources, and keep the school maintained.
Lack of teachers and staff
In the school I was at, a lack of staff had meant that children would often need help. As a teaching assistant, helping one child, both with their classroom, and with their social and emotional needs, meant that pupils with special needs missed out on valuable time to talk to someone in school. With more funding from the government this would provide teachers and assistants more time to address concerns inside the classroom. Often, in a school when an issue arises, teachers are unavailable to other children who may need their support.
Yet, inside a classroom, the class I was sat in had 12 children, a teacher, and a teaching assistant. Behaviour is a challenge and often there are children who walk outside the classroom because they are upset, angry or frustrated with their work. One of the pupils, Eric*, suffers from a severe form of autism. This affects his speech and how he expressed his emotions. On top of this, he is also underweight, and staff have to record his daily food intake in a diary. For Autistic children, autism can make them feel frustrated if they don’t understand or can’t carry out a task like other children can. Only a few months before, Eric’s mother passed away from cancer, meaning his already challenging behaviour and weight problem had drastically worsened.
Eric was no different in how he would become frustrated with tasks, such as writing a simple sentence or adding up numbers. This posed a daily challenge for the school, him, and his family, which could have resulted in him becoming verbally and physically abusive. However, providing him my presence in a one to one situation helped him a lot, sitting next to him to instil confidence and talking to him when he had worries from outside school still on his mind.
Stressed and Overworked teachers
This problem isn’t limited to Eric. Teachers are reported as feeling stressed and overworked resulting in teacher numbers falling. This is no doubt a result of the lack of staff, meaning that the duties of a teacher have increased over time. One teacher even explained on a teaching website that she was exiting because of the stress, and that:
“For the past 14 years I have experienced mounting anxiety, along with an adrenaline-fuelled mixture of dread and excitement, leading up to the night before I go back to school. It won’t be a problem this year, though, because I’m not going back this month”
In an economy that is growing at a rapid pace, classroom sizes are getting bigger-exceeding the typical 34 pupils. There have been new incentives put in place in an attempt to keep teachers in the profession, including helping new teachers to handle workloads in the classroom and cash incentives. Although these do help teachers in the short term, they don’t provide long term solutions to issues. Unless there is enough staff, both pupils and staff will continue to suffer.
* Name changed to protect child’s identity.