Unsung heroes


30 April 2020

Like many people in the sector, education support personnel (ESP) face ever bigger workloads and additional responsibilities, often without ongoing professional development, commensurate pay or job security.

It’s a global phenomenon, as research by Education International (EI) in 2018 confirms.

In Understanding the Invisible Workforce, published last year, ESPs from all over the world reported feeling “undervalued and unrecognised” for the important contributions they make to quality education. This highly-gendered workforce – most are women aged 40 to 60 – enjoy their jobs, but it’s not easy to come to the end of a busy term and wonder whether you’ll be rehired or not.

EI helps to raise awareness of the work of ESP with a celebration, ESP Day, on 16 May each year.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe supports the initiative. She says ESPs are widely respected and recognised in Australia at the local school level, but can be less so at a system level. “The education system has a responsibility to ensure they have good working conditions, the opportunity to undertake ongoing professional learning provided by their employer, and salary classification scales that recognise their skills and experience,” says Haythorpe.


Haythorpe says that when offered a good career pathway, some ESP decide to become teachers.

“With the initial rollout of Gonski funding, many schools increased the hours of ESPs to assist student learning. This included ongoing training and development for personnel,” she says. Access to permanency is another issue. ESP rely on year-by-year funding, so most work on a casual basis.

“And if that funding is related to them working with a particular child with a high level of behavioural issues or disability, that can have an impact on a person’s working hours as well,” says Haythorpe.

Trish Harrington
Business Manager, Carlton North Primary School, Victoria.
// 4 years

“I enjoy the variety. My primary responsibility is financial: I look after school revenue, expenditure and budgeting, so I need to make sure we’re staying within our means when I report to school council every month.

I also look after quite a bit on the HR side, and I coordinate the buildings and grounds. I worked in adminstration at another school for eight years

One of the best things about my job is the camaraderie. You develop quite close relationships working with each other every day in an environment where everyone’s trying to do the best for the kids.

Fitting everything in is my biggest challenge. Sometimes it can really be quite overwhelming.

There’s definitely been a shift in the way we work in the last two or three years. The department has put in place more checks and balances, and they expect a lot more to be documented for audit purposes.

That’s all well and good, but I don’t feel they know a lot about how schools operate and how time- consuming that is. With only two of us in the office, it’s difficult to maintain the right balance and get everything done in a timely way, and not be too stressed about it.”

Tanya Adams
Laboratory technician, Ulverstone Secondary College, Tasmania
// 40 years

“I did my training straight out of high school and landed a job at Penguin High School, where I worked for 18 years.

I’ve been at Ulverston for almost 20 years. I was full-time until recently, but I’m now on a nine-day fortnight.

I love what I do. It’s challenging. If you’re inclined to like science, it’s a great job.

A typical day is liaising with teachers and individual students on their investigation work, and prepping components for lessons: making up chemical solutions, preparing geology samples, physics equipment and picking up biological materials (hearts and eyeballs) from abattoirs for dissection.

I also manage laboratory resources and work with suppliers and maintenance people who service gas and other equipment.

This job has changed so much over the past 10 years. The increase in technology in the classroom and the focus on more individualised work through the Australian Curriculum has made it more dynamic.

I’m not in the classroom a lot, but I might walk a new teacher through a demonstration. It’s rare to get a new graduate specifically science-trained. An understanding of science isn’t something you just pick up, so I think the government needs to focus more on what’s required in schools.

As a woman, the workplace is a much more comfortable place now. I don’t know if that’s because I’m older and more confident.

We never have enough resources. But I feel appreciated here. The teachers are very grateful when I help remove a sheep’s eyeball from the classroom ceiling or put out a fire in the bin.”

Jacqui Toohey
Daily organiser and timetable, Kambrya College, Berwick, Victoria
// 15 years

“It’s busy. I write the timetables for about 120 teachers and about 1600 students, and I find replacements for absent teachers every day, predominantly casual relief teachers.

I love my job. The team I work with is great. The teachers are fabulous, motivated and genuinely there for the kids. It’s such a great environment.

The ESPs here are the backbone of the school, they’d struggle without us.

Workload is a challenge for everyone. There are just not enough hours in the day or enough resources or staff to achieve everything we’d love to achieve.

My dream is to write the perfect timetable. It’s never going to happen because I simply don’t have the luxury to sit down and work out exactly the best place to put people, or where their planning time would sit best within their timetable.”

Karen Hamono
Classroom Support, Prospect Primary School, South Australia
// 15 years

“I started volunteering at Prospect when my children (now 24 and 27) were students. After six years, I was hired for 12-hours a week. This was perfect as I worked school hours and spent school holidays with my sons.

I currently work 29 hours and 15 minutes a week and have been doing so for more than five years.

My permanent hours are 15. I would love to have this increased, but it is based on funding and the needs of the school.

I work with children with special needs which includes autism, hearing or vision impairment, Global Developmental Delay and trauma or under Guardianship of the Minister (GOM). Every day is different and rewarding.

Most of my time is one-on-one with the children. It can be challenging, so I try to stay one step ahead. I use my experience and research interesting activities.

Many of the children need to develop fine motor skills, so we draw upside down under a table:
I call it doing a Michelangelo. Or I get them to squeeze water from a bottle to form letters or words.

My greatest sense of achievement is seeing them progress.”


This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Autumn 2020