A Norfolk academy trust has revealed radical plans to scrap all teaching assistant (TAs) roles from its primary schools, sparking fears about the level of support it offers pupils.

The Wensum Trust has announced a major restructuring which will see TAs forced to choose between redundancy or applying for a reduced number of newly-created pastoral and learning support (PAL) roles.

Bosses at the trust - which runs eight Norfolk primaries - have said the move is necessary because of spiralling running costs caused by staff pay-rises, increased pension contributions and energy costs.

Daniel Thrower, chief executive of the trust, said its energy bills had soared by more than £500,000 in the past year while the unfunded salary uplift had added around £360,000 to the budget.

But union leaders and parents have raised concerns over how the changes could reduce the level of support pupils receive and fear that other local trusts may follow suit.

A recent study found that three-quarters of primary schools nationally are cutting teaching assistant roles.

North Norfolk News: Firside Junior School in HellesdonFirside Junior School in Hellesdon (Image: Newsquest)


Teaching assistants were first introduced in the 1960s, initially to help teachers with administrative tasks or cleaning up classroom resources.

But their responsibilities have grown since then to include assisting children with reading, writing and learning activities.

The new PAL role has a comparable salary - ranging between £22,737 and £25,979 pro-rata - and is similar but with an additional focus on supporting the emotional well-being of pupils.

However, the trust is planning to reduce the total number of such staff, from 75 full-time TAs to 48.5 PALs.

North Norfolk News: Scott Lyons from the National Education UnionScott Lyons from the National Education Union (Image: Archant)

Scott Lyons, district secretary of the National Education Union, said: "The role of teaching assistants has become so important to school life and our members will tell you they are worth their weight in gold.

"This is the biggest support staff structure I have possibly ever seen and we have our concerns about how it will work - and that it is the people closest to the breadline that are being most affected.

"We are also concerned that this will create additional work and stress for teachers themselves, who are already under incredible amounts of pressure."

North Norfolk News: Ashley Foster from the GMB unionAshley Foster from the GMB union (Image: Ashley Foster)

Ashley Foster, of the GMB Union, which represents many of the trust's teaching assistants, added: "My biggest concern is this is a totally untried and untested system which is a massive gamble.

"It is a really worrying development and the meetings when staff were told were incredibly emotional - people were leaving in floods of tears."

Rebecca Fisher, who has children at Burnham Market, one of Wensum's primaries, said she was "shocked and worried" by the proposals.

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"My daugther's TA doubles up as her one-to-one support," she said.

"I don't see how this is going to work with the school and they need to keep parents informed with what's going on.

"The job cuts aren't good and the children and the ones that will suffer."


But Daniel Thrower, chief executive of the trust - which runs primaries in Hellesdon, Old Catton, Burnham Market and Wells-next-the Sea - said other measures to reduce costs had "unfortunately not been enough" - and called for schools to be better funded.

He said: "In addition to the financial challenges, the Trust has grown organically, leading to inconsistencies in staffing structures across our schools, especially with the number of education support staff.

"The issue needs to be addressed to ensure parity and consistency across all our schools, which will bring consistency and continuity to our children."

North Norfolk News: Daniel Thrower, chief executive of the Wensum TrustDaniel Thrower, chief executive of the Wensum Trust (Image: Wensum Trust)

Should the plans go ahead it would see PALS replace teaching assistants and midday supervisors in all eight primaries - but in fewer numbers.

Currently, there are more than 100 members of staff in these roles - the equivalent of 75 full-time jobs. But this will be replaced with 48.5 full-time positions. 

Mr Thrower added that the new roles would create "improved career opportunities" for staff and that existing employees would be prioritised during the application process.

He added: "This has been an incredibly difficult decision, however, we will have to find new ways of working to bring parity across our schools, within challenging school budgets while, most importantly, providing our children with the best education and support they need.

"We do not underestimate the impact this will have on those affected and we will be supporting staff throughout the process.

"We hope to minimise the number of redundancies through not only the new PALS roles but through the natural ending of fixed-term contracts and some staff will be offered other roles within the trust when possible and appropriate."

North Norfolk News: Heather Avenue Infant School in HellesdonHeather Avenue Infant School in Hellesdon (Image: Google Street View)

The Wensum Trust is responsible for the following primary-level schools - its secondary schools are unaffected by the proposals:

  • Arden Grove Infant and Nursery in Hellesdon
  • Burnham Market Primary School
  • Firside Junior School in Hellesdon
  • Garrick Green Infant School in Old Catton
  • Heather Avenue Infant School in Hellesdon
  • Kinsale Junior School in Hellesdon
  • Lodge Lane Infant School in Old Catton
  • Wells-next-the-Sea Primary School