Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Amazing, Inspiring and Dedicated Workers, by Archie MacKay

“We don’t believe that County Hall has made any attempt to properly explain the value of Teaching Assistants to parents and the public, and we just want a fair opportunity to tell people why we feel the need to take this action.” 

In their own words, that was the brief reason why two of County Durham’s Teaching Assistants (TAs) wanted to talk to me as ballot papers on strike action were being posted to the majority of the county’s TAs.

“Durham County Council (DCC) have even taken to calling us ‘classroom helpers’ in their press statements now, instead of ‘teaching assistants’ – even though that’s what we’ve been called since our jobs were re-evaluated by the same council in 2012 – because they want to distance us from the word ‘teaching’,” said Mary, who asked that her real name not be used, as did her colleague Ann.

“But the reality,” added Ann, “is that we aren’t just Teaching Assistants, we are assistant teachers.” 

“A lot of people think that we are in school to make sure classrooms are tidy before and after lessons and that’s the extent of our role.

“They don’t realise that not only are most of us educated to degree level, but we are also highly experienced and trained in specialised areas.

“For example, I have expertise in autism and looking after other children with special needs. That’s not training that teachers have received, so they are absolutely reliant on us to help children with complex requirements.”

The list of specialisms is wide ranging, from speech and language therapy to emotional counselling, allowing TAs to work one to one with children who may need additional support and freeing teachers to work with the remaining pupils.

“We also regularly plan and even take classes when teachers are absent,” said Mary.

“I know of many TAs who have taken classes for several days when a teacher is off sick. We’re effectively used as teachers to save the school the cost of hiring in expensive supply teachers. 

“The reality is that our role has changed significantly over the decades, as has the role of teachers, and we are now a profession in our own right and should be seen as such.

“But they [Durham County Council] just don’t value us for the work we do, which is ridiculous given some County Councillors are school governors and even ex-teachers.

“They know better than most how important TAs are to the proper functioning of a school.” 

Durham County Council, after a consultation in which TAs claim they have not been listened to, has decided to sack the majority of the county’s teaching assistants after they overwhelmingly voted to reject a compensation offer which would delay for two years life-changing pay cuts of up to 23%.

The ‘compensation’ is in fact an offer to retain their current salary - already up to £4,000 a year less than other local authorities in the North East - for two more years before the swingeing cuts are introduced.

The authority claims that this exercise is not about money, but about equality

That is to say, it is not a cost-cutting exercise by a council which says it must find £30m of savings this year, and £64m between now and 2020. 

They say that TAs are paid as if they work all year when in fact they only work term time. As a result, the council is open to equality claims from staff who are already on term-time only contracts such as school cleaners and cooks.

They deny that teaching assistants are already employed on term-time only contracts that, historically, were divided by 12 and paid in monthly instalments so that TAs did not have to sign on during the school holidays. 

The authority has already admitted that, in the years since the last review of teaching assistant pay, in 2012, when TAs lost their SEN allowance, there has not been one solitary equal pay claim.

It says instead that, even though no one sought to launch an action in the past four years, there are several claims awaiting the outcome of this exercise.

One might be tempted to ask whether the phrase ‘equal pay claims’ was first mooted by a disgruntled employee, or whether it was identified within the local authority legal department as a convenient Trojan horse for future cost cutting.

Certainly, the authority does not talk about the £3m that will be saved from the schools budget. It doesn’t say whether next year that saving will be identified as a surplus and clawed back in a future budget.

Neither does it report the projected long term savings this measure will recoup – both in wages and pensions.

Somewhat ironically, the projected £3m savings from firing and re-hiring 2,700 teaching assistants is almost exactly equivalent to the combined salary shared by Durham County Council’s 28 Chief Officers and Heads of Service.

County Durham Teaching Assistant Activists Committee (CDTAAC), the group formed within the TA workforce to challenge the council’s attack on their pay, used the authority’s own pay calculator to publish details of the financial impact on a Level 3 TA earning £18,560 a year with over 5 years experience. 

Under the new terms, if such an employee was to work an additional 4.5 hours per week, they would still lose £154.66 per month or £1,856 per annum – 10% of their salary.

However, if the same TA is unable to work the additional time and instead has to remain on their current 32.5 hours per week contract, that person will lose a whopping £323.96 a month, £3,887 a year and see their salary slashed by 21%, reducing their earnings to just £14,672.

By contrast, the equivalent person, working just a dozen miles away in Darlington, under another local authority, will be earning up to £23,061.

The equally devastating effect on pensions – and the substantial savings to be made by DCC – are easy to see, even if the council don’t want to mention them. 

“If it’s not about money, why are they enforcing a pay cut of up to 23%?” asks Ann. 

 The county are yet to provide an adequate reply, saying only that they have “tried really hard to mitigate the impact of changes linked to paying staff for the hours they actually work.” 

“They haven’t ‘tried really hard’,” suggests Ann. 

“The fact is they haven’t tried at all. If they had the will, they could very easily re-grade TAs so they keep their current salaries, but they haven’t.” 

“We’re not asking for more money,” says Mary, “We’re just asking to be paid what we currently earn. All councillors have to do is re-grade us so that we keep our salaries.

“It’s a simple solution that will completely resolve this dispute, but for a county that says they’ve tried ‘really hard’ and who claim they want to ‘mitigate the impact of changes’ to our contracts, they haven’t even entertained that option.” 

There are very few people in any profession who could cushion the financial impact of a 23% pay cut, let alone some of the lowest paid workers in the country, already earning well below the national average and expected to budget for a pay cut which in many cases is more than their monthly rent.

There is already an example of a recently bought home being sold in fear of mortgage payments becoming unaffordable. 

“There aren’t many of us who can live on between £300 and £500 a month being taken out of our wages, but on top of that, we have to listen to Durham County Council constantly trying to devalue the work that we do,” said Ann. 

 “In fact, many of us would be better off quitting and going on the dole, where we would be financially better off,” is her alarming conclusion. 

“All that we ask,” they both reiterate, “is that Durham County Council values us for the work that we do, and doesn’t drive us out of a profession that we love.” 

Indeed, ‘value’ is a word that has become rooted in this dispute, with the hashtag ValueUs used by the TAs in their highly effective social media campaigns, which have brought them to the notice of national media, including one of the country’s leading film directors, Ken Loach, who mentioned their campaign during a recent interview published in the Guardian

The TAs’ campaigning has also finally persuaded Unison, the union that represents the majority of teaching assistants, to throw its full weight behind the dispute. 

TAs had been critical of a perceived lack of support from Unison, but last week its General Secretary, Dave Prentis arrived in Durham to address a packed Miners Hall, saying: 

“I hope and expect Durham TAs will vote for strike action next week. When schools are closed or short-staffed by industrial action, perhaps then Durham Council will appreciate their immense value. 

“I know that communities across Durham understand what a difference teaching assistants make to the lives of the children they work with. 

“Whether they’re learning to talk or learning to read, TAs are there from before the first bell and still there long after the last child has gone home. 

“Together we can end the injustice of massive pay cuts for those who care for our kids. 

“Together, we can and will show Durham Council they have messed with the wrong group of amazing, inspiring and dedicated workers.” 

It remains to be seen whether Durham County Councillors are sobered enough to return to the negotiating table by the image of such highly skilled workers languishing on benefits while schools, parents and, most critically, children are robbed of their valuable experience.

If not, it will be more than the county’s Teaching Assistants who are the poorer for it.

You can contribute to the County Durham Teaching Assistants strike fund here.

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