Teaching Assistants and supporters demonstrating in Durham Teaching Assistants and supporters demonstrating in Durham

With further strikes by Durham Teaching Assistants soon taking place, Megan Charlton reports on the highs and lows of the campaign

Another roller coaster of a week for County Durham Teaching Assistants and, as we hurtle towards New Years’ Eve (when we will all be sacked), the highs get higher and the lows get lower.

The Lows

The stress that TAs are under is increasing day by day. Headteachers are under enormous pressure from Durham County Council to keep schools open during strike days and to deal with us working to rule. Schools are putting pressure on teachers to move their PPA* days; some schools are bringing in supply staff; others are asking parents and governors to come in and help in class and cover playground duty; some schools are even considering opening without adequate First Aid cover and in others the parents of SEN children have been asked to keep their child at home while the rest of the class are in. 

This time of year in a primary school should be one of excitement and joy: instead we are feeling torn and guilty that many children will lose out on Christmas activities, parties, pantomime trips, all those things that we willingly gave up our time for (yes, those extra hours that we never questioned) because this is a caring profession and we care about the children. We have to keep reminding ourselves that, if we strike, these children will lose out THIS Christmas: if we have massive pay cuts imposed on us, many of us will be forced to leave our jobs and the children will lose out EVERY year and not just at Christmas.

The anger we feel when we hear the Council’s official line on the dispute is also increasing day by day. This week we heard Jane Brown (DCC’s Portfolio Holder for Corporate Services) make the following statements on local news:

Tax payers’ money has gone to pay them for more hours than they are contracted for. A lot of people would be shocked to hear that TAs get 13 weeks fully paid holidays a year and 5 hours a week fully paid that they don’t actually work.

This is a deliberate attempt to turn the public against us. Our contracts state a salary for the 32.5 hours a week we work, holidays will be that of the school. She makes us sound greedy, as if we are claiming something we are not entitled to whereas all we have ever done is work for the salary and the hours and weeks on our CONTRACTS. We DO NOT get paid 13 weeks holiday, we receive a SALARY divided into 12 equal payments. In reality, we work (or used to work) way more hours than we are contracted for and never received a penny in overtime: if the Council want to pay us for the ‘hours we actually work’ they might find themselves in serious financial difficulty.

It was a local agreement. Once it [the risk of equal pay claims] was brought to our attention, we took legal advice and we acted immediately.

This local agreement was in 2004. All it did was standardise the job titles and the qualifications required to do each level, we did not suddenly start working fewer hours or receive pay rises. I repeat, it was in 2004 … but they acted immediately (in 2015). And as a local MP said yesterday, if someone raises an equal pay claim, so what? It doesn’t mean they are going to win it. 

The interviewer asked: why not raise their wages? (Our pay grades are substantially less than TAs in other local councils)

Costing it out, it would cost tens of millions of pounds and would lead to hundreds and hundreds of job losses, something trade unions and the public wouldn’t want.

No it wouldn’t. If they raised our grades to reflect the realities of the jobs we now do in schools (which have changed massively since job evaluation in 2012), THEN cut the number of weeks we are paid, it wouldn’t cost more. We are not asking for more and the Council say this is not about saving money so let’s work together to find a cost neutral solution.

We really, really want to resolve it. We’ve always had an open door policy and are pleased to announce that, as of last week, we have re-entered negotiations with Unison.

There has been a ‘conversation’ with Unison, but no negotiations as Unison’s non-negotiable is that the threat to sack on December 31st is lifted before any meaningful negotiations can begin. If they really, really want to resolve it they will lift the threat to sack us so we can negotiate.

The Highs

As ever, Durham Teaching Assistants have acted throughout with professionalism, dignity, strength and determination. On Wednesday, we had over 100 registered picket lines outside schools: again, we were not there to stop people going in to work but to engage with parents, grandparents and the public. At the picket line I was at, the TAs from the school had printed out letters thanking families for their support and they were very well received. Local people brought pies, mince pies, biscuits, coffees and Neil from Hull turned up with his homemade placards, having got up at 5am to come and show his support. He ended up staying the night so he could join us on Thursday too! 

In many areas, TAs from different schools later joined together to hand out leaflets and raise awareness in their local towns. In Consett, a passer-by donated £50 to our strike fund, others joined in with the demonstration.

On Thursday, we came together outside County Hall again. This time we stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’ and we stretched all around the roundabout and down the approach roads. There were over 1100 of us, some were supporters but the vast majority were Teaching Assistants. Neil from Hull was there again, as were Bolton TUC and Bolton Unison Metro Branch after driving up that morning to show their support. At 10am we did the ‘Mannequin Challenge’ where we all stood in silence displaying the amount of money we will lose. The amounts are shocking: £3000, £4000, £4600 and a family, where the mum and dad are both TAs, who will lose over £8000 a year.

After that, 1100 TAs marched into Durham, streaming over 2 different bridges and converging on the market square chanting and singing. The atmosphere was electric and the support from the public was superb. At noon, we circled the Gala Square in silence, again displaying our pay losses. At the end of the minute we ‘made some noise’ then chanted and sang. If you haven’t seen any of the footage, it’s worth watching: the footage of TAs coming over Old Elvet Bridge has been viewed a staggering 87,500 times already. 

Yesterday, Teaching Assistants were out spreading word of our campaign at the Grunwick 40 conference in London and at Labour Party meetings in Newcastle and Durham. At the City of Durham CLP, 2 of us took part in a debate on a motion to call on the Council to lift the threat of sacking and enter meaningful negotiations. The support in the room for the Teaching Assistants was incredible and both motions were passed unanimously. Similar motions were passed at North West Durham CLP and Darlington on Friday night. 

With the support of CLPs, parents and the public it is difficult to see how Durham County Council can continue to hide behind threats of equal pay claims. County Durham Teaching Assistants call on the Council to lift the threat to sack us on New Year’s Eve and enter into meaningful negotiations with us and our unions to ‘Get It Sorted’. We will not give up until it is, we can’t afford to give up for ourselves and we can’t afford to give up for the children of County Durham who depend on our support.

We will be on strike next Thursday (1st Dec) and 3 days the following week (6th-8th Dec) and we will keep going until the Council listens to reason and does the right thing. 

Watch footage of last week’s strike on the Facebook page: Durham Teaching Assistants Value Us campaign

Follow the Official twitter page: @TAs_Durham

*PPA: Planning, Preparation, Assessment. Teachers are entitled to half a day PPA time a week, it is normally covered by Teaching Assistants who teach the class (and often plan the lessons).

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