Durham Teaching Assistants at NUT Conference 2017 NUT Conference 2017: Lions of Durham. Photo: NUT Twitter, Kois Miah

The Durham TAs’ experience - struggle builds confidence; the more we fight, the stronger we become 

On April 8th last year, just over a year ago, I went to my first demo ever. It was on a cold Friday morning on a roundabout outside County Hall in Durham and I had no idea what to expect or how many people would be there. It had been organised by Durham TAs through our Facebook support page and the event showed about 50 people were going with another 100 interested. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it, it’s not really my thing demonstrating, chanting, drawing attention to myself. I thought it would be cold, embarrassing, boring – three and a half hours standing on a roundabout at the side of a main road into Durham? But I felt so strongly about the proposed 23% cut to my pay that I felt I had no choice. So I made myself some placards using the poles from my windbreak and, having done a quick risk assessment, I put tennis balls on the pointy ends just to be on the safe side, met up with some of my colleagues and off we went.

It was nothing like I expected and, for me, it was a life-changing experience. In the end there were about 300 of us and we sang, chanted, blew whistles, cheered every time a passing motorist beeped their horn. The time flew past and it was a lot of fun but, most importantly, I felt part of something; I wasn’t on my own any more, I was part of a 2,700-strong professional workforce all facing huge pay cuts.

Because up to that point I had felt frustrated. I had been writing, emailing, making phone calls to councillors, MPs, union officials, council officers, anyone I could think of to complain about the proposed pay cuts. I was frustrated that the Council were saying they had to cut our pay because of the risk of equal pay claims despite the fact equal pay was brought in to protect women on low pay, not beat their pay down even lower. I was frustrated that the Council said we were paid for more hours than we actually worked despite the fact we were paid a salary for the hours they told us to work in our contracts. I was frustrated that the Council said they had to move us to term time only, despite the fact Nursery Nurses in Durham were moved to term time only in the 1970s and then later their pay was divided into 12 equal parts and spread across the year. I was frustrated because I was trying to shout but my voice was weak and nobody was listening.

And it’s easy to feel alone in our schools, in our classrooms. I work in a small primary school in a town in rural County Durham and I felt I had no voice, no power. In our schools it’s easy to feel intimidated, to feel we shouldn’t rock the boat or put our heads above the parapet. It’s easy to feel we don’t have time to fight because we are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work we face and the sheer size of the mountains we have to climb. And that’s how we felt in Durham; sometimes we were fighting our heads, sometimes we were fighting teachers, sometimes (and this was the hardest part) we were fighting fellow TAs who were so worried about the proposed cuts that they thought we should accept the derisory offer of delaying the cuts for 2 years and calling it compensation. At the beginning we were fighting our unions who told us there was nothing we could do and always, always we were fighting our Council – our Labour Council – who, once we had rejected their ridiculous proposals, voted to sack us on New Year’s Eve and reinstate us on New Year’s Day on the inferior contracts.

But sometimes you have to lift your head and look outside of your classroom, outside of your school because some things are too important to ignore or to put to one side. Sometimes you have to lift your head above the parapet and, when you do that, you may be surprised by what you find. Sometimes you don’t get shot at, you just see lots of other people looking back at you trying to find the strength to get up and fight.

In the trade union movement we are encouraged to ask three questions when deciding if a dispute is worth fighting: is it deeply felt; is it widely felt; is it winnable? Personally, I would simplify that to only two questions: is it deeply felt, and is it widely felt. Because if it is both of those, then it is worth fighting for whether you think it is winnable or not. Because we were told by everyone that there was nothing we could do, we could never win against the Council but, luckily for us, a tiny group of unbelievably strong, determined women decided to ignore that advice because they knew what was happening to us was just so wrong. Those women started our campaign and built it from the bottom up. They started with a Facebook page, originally a place to rant and share information, but it soon became a place to organise. They organised local cluster groups across the county so as many people as possible could come. It started with 30-40 and quickly grew to over 100 at a meeting. At that first demo there were 300, at the next 500, at the last 1000. And they were fighting enormous pressure and intimidation but they knew that what was happening was fundamentally wrong and unjust and they knew that, whatever the outcome, they wanted to be able to look at themselves in the mirror and say ‘I wasn’t a victim, I fought it with everything I’ve got’. And every time we came together, we grew in strength and in confidence.

At our first rally at the Miners’ Hall last June, I sat in the audience and listened to those brave TAs talking about what was being done to us and I thought, these women are TAs like me; how can I expect them to fight my fight? I need to do something. So the next day I started researching how other councils had dealt with similar issues and I got in contact with Barnet Unison, a brilliant fighting branch who do a fantastic job of involving the whole community in their campaigns and they gave me lots of information and advice. Then I contacted our campaign organisers and got actively involved.

And really, that’s the key to our success: involving and empowering people. In those early days our motto was ‘nobody can do everything but everybody can do something’. It was recognising that everybody has a part to play and that, by playing a part, they can feel stronger. It was about making sure as many people as possible could get involved because for every person who gets involved and feels empowered, there is one less victim. And for every person who comes to a demo or meeting, there is someone going back into school telling their colleagues about how much stronger they feel and encouraging them to come next time. 

I have a colleague who nearly went under with the stress of worrying about losing her home. She nearly went under with the stress of worrying about having to leave the job she loves and has done for 32 years because, to her, it’s not a job it’s a vocation. She nearly went under with the stress of worrying about having to leave the school she has worked in for 27 years because, to her, it’s not a school it’s a family. But she didn’t go under, she started fighting back. She started researching how the different councillors had voted, she started coming to demos and meetings, she started organising the TAs in our school. She has now done interviews with local TV from a picket line and from her own home and has strength and determination in bucket loads and is an absolute inspiration.

And the strength of our campaign has been involving as many people as possible and varying the events we organise. We have held mass events but also week-long vigils where people could sign up for an hour when it suited them. We have sent out our own press releases, built relationships with local media, travelled the country building support from the trade union movement. Our social media team has worked tirelessly and creatively to keep our campaign in the public eye. Our committee is diverse; none of us knew each other before and we all have different strengths and skills. We don’t always agree but that’s fine because if we all agree, we are only representing people who think the same as us. If we don’t agree we know we are representing the wider body of TAs who won’t all agree either. But we have always been able to work together because we have one common aim; fighting 23% pay cuts.

It’s been relatively easy for me as I have never been at risk of losing my home or not being able to feed my kids. But we are talking about people losing £3,000, £4,000, £5,000 a year. We aren’t talking about cutting back on luxuries, we are talking about losing your house or being forced to leave your job. And to see people faced with those risks having the courage to stand up and fight has been humbling and inspiring. To see TAs grow in confidence has been one of the few pleasures of the last year: TAs who said at the beginning ‘I could never speak in public’, then stand on a bollard in Gala Square at our Solidarity Rally a couple of weeks ago and address a crowd of hundreds, or do their first speech to the ATL conference last week or offer to travel all over the country on April 29th to speak at May Day rallies or tell their story to newspaper and TV journalists.

None of us had any experience in fighting a campaign before this started. Many of us hadn’t been on strike before and none of us had been on a picket line. And that time was really, really tough. We went from the elation of getting a 93% vote for strike action to crashing down to face the realities of extreme pressure from the Council and Headteachers to keep schools open. We were alone and isolated in our schools and we felt guilty about the effect on children, on families, on teachers and on our schools. We had doubts about whether we were doing the right thing. But as soon as we went on strike we felt the strength of collective action and we fed on the confidence of others. On our first strike day we had over 80 picket lines across County Durham. TAs who were too nervous to picket their own schools joined neighbouring schools and, to our surprise, we discovered we had massive support from parents, grandparents and the wider public. The second set of strike days we had over 120 picket lines as people felt confident enough to picket their own schools. On the other 2 strike days we held demos and rallies in Durham with over 1000 TAs and supporters. And by this time we had the full strength of Unison and ATL behind us and we heard Dave Prentis announce at our rally that we would receive full strike pay from day one, a sure sign that they believed in us and what we were fighting for.

And the strength of our action, together with the support of unions, the public and growing pressure from local rank and file Labour Party members, who were horrified by what was being done in their name, led to the Council suspending the forced implementation of new contracts and agreeing to a full review of Teaching Assistants’ roles.

So where are we now? We have completed a full review of the roles and responsibilities of TAs of every level in every educational setting across the county so that job descriptions match the jobs we do now, not the ones we did years ago when a Classroom Assistant washed paint pots and listened to readers. The next step starts after Easter when HR and trade union representatives will be going into every school to see where TAs fit onto the new grading system. Once that is sorted, it will form part of a package which will be sent out to every TA to tell them how they will be affected. Once TAs have all the information, they will be balloted on whether they accept the proposals.

So, what is the future for Durham TAs? We are much stronger and more confident than we were a year ago. We have a network of schools contacts across the county (in over 200 of the 270 schools) plus hundreds of TAs active on our facebook support page. And we need to use that: we need to use it to encourage more TAs to become union reps in school; we need to use it to make sure TAs feel  they can question and challenge when they think something is not right in their school. But most importantly we need to use it to fight the cuts that are coming to education. 

The last year and a half has shown us what we can achieve when we engage with people inside and outside of our campaign. When I see reports of the campaign against education funding cuts I see the same thing but on a much, much bigger scale. During the last year we have gained strength and built support by making sure people understand we are not just fighting for ourselves, we are also fighting for the future of our profession. Because if experienced, skilled, dedicated support staff are forced out of their jobs because they can’t afford to stay, what is the future for our schools and the children in them? And what if we win the fight for our pay only to find there are no jobs left because of the cuts? It’s already happening in Durham and elsewhere. Teachers and TAs being made redundant; TAs being told they can apply for another job but it will be a lower grade. 

I was in contact recently with a TA in the Midlands who has been a Nursery Nurse for 30 years and has been told her post is being made redundant and the only job available is a Level 1, unqualified support assistant. But they know that she will not ‘dumb herself down’. If she takes that job, she won’t suddenly start working in a different way. Faced with a child who needs her support, she won’t suddenly forget her years of training and experience, she will carry on working in the way she has always done, doing the best for the children and families she works with. But if she doesn’t take that job (and who would blame her?), how will they replace her with an unqualified, inexperienced support assistant? What effect will that have on the school, the teachers, the children and the families she works with?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. We have shown in Durham and in Derby what can be achieved by standing together and refusing to be a victim, refusing to accept what you know is fundamentally wrong.

I’m going to finish with 2 quotes which sum up why I’m fighting and why we all need to fight.

The first is from a fellow Durham TA who was preparing for her first media interview and was telling me why she was prepared to go on strike. She said: I can choose to do another job but the families of the children I support can’t choose another child. If I leave, what will happen to them?

And the second one is from a teacher at Unite the Resistance conference last November and it’s simple: struggle builds confidence.

That is definitely something we have found in County Durham and I know TAs in Derby have found the same; we are stronger, more determined and much more confident than we were a year ago. And our message to you is: if something is not right, don’t be a victim; get up and fight.  And we all know that something is definitely not right in education at the moment. So let’s all get up and fight, together, because together we are stronger and the more we fight, the stronger we become.

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