Boosting technician numbers could improve workload for everyone – but how can it be done?
Science technicians are integral to their department. ‘Effective technician support comes in a variety of forms,’ states a recent report on the reduced technician workforce by the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER). commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry.
However, in their study, NFER reports that the technician turnover rate has been on the increase, rising from 15% in 2011/12 to 20% by 2014/15 and remaining at this figure ever since. Many schools have chosen not to replace these technicians who have left. And, although different metrics have been used to measure technician support in schools (eg technician FTE per school, per 100 pupils, per teacher or weekly technician hours per teaching hour), regardless of the metric type, all data reflect a 13–16% downward trend. The study also indicates that most teachers and all technicians have observed an increase in their workload.
In other words, technicians, most of whom work part-time with term-time only contracts, are now spread more thinly. Teachers report seeing the extra workload passed on not only to the remaining technicians, but also to them. To help understand this shift, we asked teachers, technicians and representative organisations to share their thoughts on why this is and what needs to be done.
‘Reduction in the technician support available to teachers has certainly been a contributor to increasing workload,’ comments a representative from NASUWT, The Teachers’ Union. ‘Surveys conducted by the NASUWT and by government make clear that excessive and unnecessary workloads are the main concerns.’
Workload-increasing tasks listed by teachers include stocktaking, equipment maintenance, classroom and corridor displays, photocopying, health and safety, and training non-specialist technicians. Teachers also mourn the lack of time for planning and training new staff. But most of all they are frustrated with the impact on lessons.
‘Standards are maintained when teachers are able to concentrate on their core responsibilities for teaching and learning’
‘By undertaking tasks that might more appropriately be allocated to technicians, teachers are distracted from focusing on teaching,’ NASUWT points out. For example, some have re-evaluated classroom practicals. The head of chemistry from a school in Brent, London comments that ‘fewer practical activities are done at KS3 [resulting in] students not [being] properly prepared for higher levels.’ They added that equipment set out in bulk and being distributed and collected in-class means there is ‘less time to do actual practical activities’.
Of the teachers we spoke to, a small minority say they have not noticed any difference in their workload. However, this same group sang the praises of their senior leadership team’s (SLT) support in technician recruitment, or their remaining technicians for taking on extra responsibilities. Technicians’ non-science jobs include registration, cover work, supervision, invigilation, school trips, reprographics, stationery/textbook organisation and even deployment to clean the kitchen. One experienced senior technician took on the huge and time-consuming responsibilities of budget management and timetabling.
Adding to technicians’ responsibilities has further knock-on effects, for example health and safety
Chris Galvin, director of Preproom.org, also points out that such extra tasks are taken on by technicians without ‘any extra hours or pay’. Even though teachers rely on technicians to wear many hats, the heavy workload and responsibilities are not reflected in their salaries, making burned-out technicians feel undervalued.
Adding to technicians’ responsibilities has further knock-on effects. For example, technicians express their concern over the lack of time for the important but non-urgent jobs that impact the department’s health and safety; when prioritising classroom practicals, such jobs are compromised. The increase in lone technicians is also worrying. ‘It is demoralising and lonely and a health and safety issue,’ explains Jackie, a senior technician in Oxfordshire. ‘There are many things a technician cannot be expected to do if working alone.’ To this end, Simon Quinnell, chair of the Association for Science Education (ASE) suggests each school has at least one full-year contract technician, topped up with the recommended technician support per standardised metric.
Recognition for technicians
Discussing the situation with inidividual teachers and technician, they were unified in their opinions on the inadequacy of technician pay and recognition. This lack of recognition for technicians and their impact in schools certainly needs to be addressed to combat retention and, in turn, workload.
Currently, science technicians are grouped together with all support staff. However, their job role requires a higher level of training; many have scientific degrees and industrial backgrounds. With respect to this, Simon believes SLTs need to ‘understand the complexity of the role and its technical nature.’ NASUWT concurs: ‘It is important that school leaders and government recognise that technicians are highly skilled members of the wider school workforce.’ A pay scale specific to science technicians could recognise this; suggestions include one similar to teachers, or other technical roles in higher education and industry.
This sentiment is also echoed by teachers, who say technicians can use their expertise to help them by making recommendations for best practice and appropriate experiments, problem-solving experimental issues, dealing with emergencies, as well as demonstrating experiments to students, early career/trainee teachers and non-specialists. As Andrew, a teacher in an Oxfordshire school, says: ‘techs have science backgrounds and are … better informed about alternative practicals/methods.’ For this reason, Richard Blunt, a chemistry technician at Haileybury School in Hertfordshire, suggests teachers ‘get to know their techs [as they] come from a wide range of backgrounds and so have different strengths.’
SLTs need to ‘understand the complexity of the role and its technical nature’
Technicians’ technical skills can also have a positive impact on teacher workload, as Laura-Jane Carter, a teacher in Didcot Girls’ School in Oxfordshire, explains: ‘The most important thing that lightens my workload is the reassurance that the practicals [I have] ordered have been tested and [will] work properly. I don’t always have a chance to practise [them].’
With the aim of boosting recognition for technicians, Preproom.org and UNISON are launching a new standards mark, Technical Champions, for schools in March 2021 that recognises technicians as essential members of the workforce and supports their career development. It also addresses the popular desire for CPD and career paths. In addition, Simon recommends ‘a nationally available training programme … with a recognised qualification and backed up with RSciTech status.’ Chris also argues that ‘technicians need the kind of development … that turned “classroom assistants” into TAs and HLTAs [who are now viewed as] being professional, knowledgeable and an integral part of any successful school.’
More techognition, more balance
Ultimately, as NASUWT says, ‘technicians make a direct contribution to raising standards of educational achievement [and] standards are maintained when teachers are able to concentrate on their core responsibilities for teaching and learning.’ Keeping them in the profession is important for increasing the numbers of technicians in science departments and letting teachers do what they do best – teach.
Suggestions to retain technicians include fairer pay, more CPD and recognised technician qualifications. NASUWT also thinks a change in government policy is key: ‘More investment is required on the part of central government to ensure that adequate resources are available in all settings to secure the deployment of technicians.’ However, it also seems a change in schools’ policies is important in making a positive impact on workloads in science departments.
This article was updated 26 February 2021 to address factual inaccuracies.