teaching assistants Durham Teaching Assistants protesting in November 2016. Photo: Tony Dowling

Bridget Yuill from the Durham Teaching Assistants campaign looks at some of the wider issues raised by cost cutting in education

Through personal experience as a Durham Teaching Assistant (TA), I have seen bean counters progressively influence the way our schools are run. In our schools, balancing the books seems to have become a higher priority than reading them. With the current government making severe cuts to school budgets, Headteachers must devise ways to implement cuts passed on to them by councils.

Cuts are passed along right down to the front line – schools. Downgrading support staff is downgrading education. What happens when support staff are absent? Larger class sizes, little or no support, those with learning difficulties falling further behind, children who struggle with some subjects receiving none of the attention they need, no one there to give a hug to the child whose father died – these cuts are not just about our pay.

As the new academic year 2017 approaches, the vicious cycle of school budgets starts again. Increased class size with existing budget means less money spent per pupil and fewer support staff and fewer educational targets reached – meaning, in some cases, less funding. Headteachers have to decide which children need support the most, how many support staff they can actually afford and, finally, whose job will be cut.

Women aged over 30, with experience in caring for their own children, seem to be the targets of cuts. If I were to lose my job, would another school take me on with my salary and pension? There is an ugly tendency towards ageism in schools, especially for women. We middle-aged women are seen as `past it`, despite our wealth of knowledge and experience. The bean-counters and managers, who seldom set foot in schools, love the idea of youthful, fresh-faced, biddable and – let’s face it – cheap apprentices. However, the children’s education will be affected negatively by shrinking budgets.

The role of the TA has changed immensely over the years. So much so, that it is questionable how the pupils’ attainment and targets will be met without them. When I started 13 years ago TAs were instructed by class teachers. Now, TAs deliver speech therapy, physiotherapy, plan and assess lessons, mark assignments, teach whole classes, supervise residential school trips – the list is endless.

Recently I saw teaching assistant posts advertised with a Job Agency. It required the candidate to be a graduate, to have a 2.1 degree and plan to become a teacher in the future – for £60-£70 per day. But education on the cheap doesn’t work; fewer young people, saddled with debt, will tolerate such wages. Nor can a 2:1 degree replace the empathy and skills borne of many years’ working with children.

An additional stress for Durham Teaching Assistants

For close to two years now, Durham TAs have ensured they’ve delivered these considerable duties whilst simultaneously fighting proposed pay cuts and changes to their terms and conditions.

In October 2015 Durham County Council wrote to us to say our pay would be cut by up to 23%. Unison TAs and ATL TAs rejected this proposal. Industrial Action followed, with two lots of 2 day strikes in November 2016.

We were successful. DCC soon buckled, agreeing to a full review of all Teaching Assistants’ roles in recognition that the role has changed. Months of work followed drafting new job descriptions. However, in July 2017 they tried to buy off a majority of staff with a decent offer whilst continuing to cut the pay of 472 TAs. I’m proud to say that solidarity amongst the TAs ensured we rejected it; though we may have been willing to work more hours, we will not tolerate cuts in pay. We now enter a third year with DCC in negotiations with the unions.

Our case is just. But it is not just our fight. We care about our children, their parents and the schools. Whilst we are employed we will do our best to ensure a good education for all. But often we feel that we are the only ones fighting austerity. Certainly, Durham County Council, despite being Labour, failed to even challenge the cuts. There is much more at stake than simply our pay: if we tolerate the implementation of austerity measures, education as we know it will suffer.

So is it purely down to balancing the books or ensuring a good education for all?

Justine Greening, Education Secretary has promised a rise in core funding for schools, claiming that the national funding formula will deliver higher per-pupil funding. Based on the weak response of Labour figures and the abject behaviour by a solidly Labour Council – I’m not holding my breath.

Who will stop cuts to the school budgets? If we want to ensure a successful education for all, we all need to fight pay caps, budget cuts and austerity. In 2010, Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education, wanted to get rid of TAs – this budget cutting is a not so subtle way of following this through. But teachers rely on us; they are already under pressure to ensure targets are attained. Teachers already work evenings, weekends and holidays. And there are problems recruiting competent teachers. So if their TA support is removed, how on earth could they be expected to deliver a successful education?

Without us, the vicious cycle will spiral further down. School budget cuts mean cuts in support staff and resources, mean more stress on class teachers, means a poorer education for children. Help us win this battle and we might be led by people who know the value –not simply the cost – of education.

Facebook Page: Durham Teaching Assistants Value Us campaign

Twitter: @TAs_Durham

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