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Durham Teaching Assistants protest. Photo: @TAs_Durham

Durham Teaching Assistants protest. Photo: @TAs_Durham

Durham County Council may have bitten off more than they can chew in challenging their local Teaching Assistants, reports embedded campaigner Megan Charlton 

Last October, Durham County Council announced changes to the terms and conditions of their 2,700 Teaching Assistants. They claimed that ‘we are paid for hours we don’t work and for weeks we don’t work’. This message made us sound greedy and as if we were claiming something we were not entitled to. However, this was a very misleading message to send to the public as Durham TAs are employed on contracts (given to them by the Council) which state that our working hours are 32.5 a week and holidays are that of the school (190 days contact time + 5 training days per year). We are paid a ‘salary’ and this salary is divided into 12 equal parts. We are not paid for 52 weeks a year.

The Council was proposing that we increase our hours to 37 hours a week and that, for working the extra hours (175 per year), we would receive pay cut of ‘only’ 10%.

Only 10%? 10% is a huge pay cut (we haven’t received a pay rise for several years and many TAs already lost their SEN allowances of almost £1,200pa in 2012). But not all schools are able to offer the additional hours and not all TAs are in a position to be able to work them.

Reject

If a TA stays on their current 32.5 hours, they will lose between 20-25% of their pay. This varies depending on how long you have been working for the council and is also not precise because we have never received official confirmation of what our pay will be if we can’t or won’t work the extra hours. The Council does have a ‘pay calculator’ on its website (only added in July 2016 after requests from TAs) but it is very confusing to use and only tells you your loss after tax, not your gross loss per annum. We suspect that they have never put our full loss in writing for staying on our current hours because it is so shocking, with annual losses of £3-5,000+.

Despite not giving us accurate information about proposed salaries for 32.5 hours, two weeks ago the Council (via head teachers) were pressuring TAs to state how many hours they will work if these proposals go ahead. Unison advice was that indicating at this stage was not binding, however, a member of the campaign spent many hours on the phone and discovered that it actually was contractual and could only be changed at a later date by agreement with the head teacher and a ‘variation of contract by agreement’.

We have complained to the Director of Corporate Finance that we were being expected to make decisions with long-lasting financial implications without being given the necessary information to make an informed decision. The response was that we could find out our salary loss ourselves by using the online pay calculator and that they had a timeline to stick to so that they could issue new contracts with the letter advising that we will be sacked on 31 December.

County Durham Teaching Assistants vow to reject Durham County Council’s latest ‘new, improved’ offer as it is not new or improved. We still stand to lose 10% of our pay if we agree to work an additional 175 hours a year, or 20-25% of our pay if we stay on the hours in our current contracts. The Council claim they have improved the offer by doubling the ‘compensation’. In reality, the ‘compensation’ is actually our own money which they allow us to keep for a little while: so one year’s compensation means we keep our money for one year and two years’ compensation means we keep it for two years. At the end of that time, we lose the full amount of pay.

The Council claims they have to do this to remove the risk of equal pay claims, despite Freedom of Information requests showing that there has never been a claim with a TA comparator in Durham or elsewhere. It is also difficult to see how they can talk of equal pay when we know TAs doing the same job in the same school on different grades. The Council doesn’t hold any Teaching Assistants’ contracts: they produce guideline job descriptions and it is up to the head teacher to change it to suit their requirements and decide what grade TAs should be on. Nobody checks this so there is no consistency between schools or even within schools. The Council says individual TAs can ask to be regraded but this will increase inequality as some head teachers will regrade and some won’t: some TAs will push for regrading and some, for whatever reason, will not feel able to.

The Council claims moving us to Term Time Only ‘brings us into line with other Councils’ but they fail to mention that this is only in the way we are paid, not the amount. Durham TAs are amongst the lowest paid TAs in the area and in the country. The Council says they don’t have to be equal with other Councils in pay, yet use other Councils as a reason to change our terms and conditions.

Fighting

Durham County Council claim they ‘have no choice’, but other Councils have moved to Term Time Only hand-in-hand with regrading of all TAs to reflect the realities of the current role. This removed, or greatly mitigated, the loss to pay. TAs feel that we the title of ‘Teaching Assistant’ no longer reflects what we do as our responsibilities have increased massively over recent years. We are now Assistant Teachers as we plan, teach, assess, write reports, attend meetings with outside agencies and so on.

The Council claims it is not a money-saving exercise (although the report to Councillors quotes annual savings of over £4m). If that is the case, they could regrade us and move to TTO as other Councils have done to mitigate the huge losses. We are not asking for a pay rise, we just want to keep the same pay for the same job.

At Wednesday night’s Solidarity Rally (attended by hundreds of TAs), a motion was passed unanimously to reject the derisory offer. Unions are currently carrying out an indicative ballot, which will close on 27 September. If, as expected, the offer is rejected, a ballot will be held on industrial action.

Teaching Assistants are well aware that industrial action will have a huge impact on families, children and schools and it is not a decision we will take lightly. However, we feel we have no choice as the only negotiation by Durham County Council has been to the timescale for implementing these life-changing pay cuts. Some dedicated, experienced TAs have already left their jobs, unable to deal with the stress of this situation: many others will be forced to leave if these proposals go ahead. Some TAs have already sold their homes, frightened that they will have to sell in a hurry if these proposals go ahead. Others know they will have to do so when their pay is cut.

Imagine what the Labour Councillors would say if a private company were sacking a whole section of their workforce in order to make them work extra hours for less pay. We are fighting for our future, the future of our profession and the future of our schools and the children in them.

You can support our campaign by: following @TAs_Durham on Twitter; liking and sharing our Facebook page ‘Support our local County Durham teaching assistants; You can support our campaign by: following @TAs_Durham on Twitter, liking and sharing our Facebook page ‘Support our local County Durham teaching assistants’ or donating to our JustGiving page. The funds will be used for campaign costs and legal advice.

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