As teaching assistants in Durham accept a new pay offer, Megan Charlton debunks the myths about the dispute, and Bridget Yuill explains why she voted for the deal

You may have heard that last week Unison TAs in Durham, who make up the majority of the workforce, accepted the Council’s latest offer in our long-running dispute (62% voted to accept on a turnout of 57%). GMB TAs weren’t balloted as they accepted previous offers and ATL TAs voted to reject (56% on a 60% turnout).That is true. You may have heard many other things, some fact, some fiction, some opinion. I was a member of the TA committee, I’m a Unison steward and have been involved in negotiations since last December and this is my personal opinion on some of the things you may have heard.

You may have heard that we have given in and accepted a bad deal

We haven’t given in at all, nor have we left anyone behind, been brainwashed or any of the other things the majority who accepted the deal have been accused of in the last week. I certainly didn’t back this deal because I had had enough of fighting or because I wasn’t going to lose money. I backed the deal because it is a significant improvement on the previous deal (and all the others before it) and offers clear opportunities to work on eliminating the loss for those who still face one.

You may have heard that this deal is no different from the last

It is. The main issue in the summer was that the new grading structure required the vast majority of TAs to teach whole classes. Apart from the fact that many TAs would have to take on a significant extra responsibility, it left no options to mitigate the loss of the largest group still losing (most of whom currently teach whole classes but aren’t Higher Level Teaching Assistants).

The new deal includes clarification that, in line with the rest of the country, only HLTAs will be able to teach whole classes. This means the majority now don’t have extra responsibilities and we have options to mitigate losses by moving those required to teach classes to a higher grade. We have also identified other options that would work for TAs losing for other reasons but these rely on the new grading structure being in place.

The new deal also includes setting up a Progression Board with the remit of exploring all options to find solutions to the pay losses with the aim that nobody will lose out in 2 years. The Council had never previously put this aim in writing. It also included clarification that, although we will have to work the additional hours, they can be applied flexibly taking into account work done out of school and out of school hours such as staff meetings, planning, marking, finding and making resources, going on residentials etc. For many TAs, this will involve no change to how they were working before this dispute began when all those ‘extras’ were done on a goodwill basis.

You may have heard that Unison have let us all down

If you have read my blog before (posting as Lions of Durham), you will know that I have had many issues with Unison during this campaign. I thought about leaving early on but was advised that it would be much better to stay and fight to make them fight for us. So I did and that’s why I became a Unison steward. Early on, they weren’t listening and definitely weren’t fighting so TAs organised themselves and waged a brilliant campaign that I am immensely proud to have been a part of.

Through public pressure, we forced Unison to listen to us and we forced them to give us full strike pay because of the wider significance of our dispute (fighting a Labour Council that intended to sack an entire workforce to impose inferior contracts). The Council put several previous offers to us and we rejected them all: until last June, all offers involved 100% of TAs losing money. Unison TA stewards have challenged Unison every step of the way and will continue to do so until no TAs are facing a pay loss. We are now in a position that Unison listen to us and fight when we tell them something is a red line issue. What they can’t do is wave a magic wand and make all this go away. The Council would not withdraw their plans to change our contracts so we had to find solutions that would deal with the outcome of those plans, i.e. loss of pay and increase in hours. A solution that addresses the pay loss for 78% now with clear opportunities to solve the pay loss for 22% within the 2 year period plus a flexible approach to the extra hours is a huge improvement on where we were this time last year when the Council was going to sack us and impose the new contracts.

You may have heard the 472 (TAs still facing a potential loss) will be forgotten about

They won’t. We have firm, written commitments from the Council and Unison that the priority of the Progression Board is to work on those losses and aim to eliminate all of them before January 2020. I’m not naive enough to think that we can sit back and relax and expect it just to happen. Unison will be holding regular cluster meetings for their members still facing losses to update them on the progress of the Progression Board, the Board will report regularly to the Council so that Councillors will be updated on progress and TAs and the wider Trade Union movement will be watching to ensure that everybody delivers on their commitments.

You may have heard that the Progression Board is pointless

The number one priority of the Progression Board is to explore options for mitigating pay losses with the clear aim that nobody will lose out after the 2 year compensation period. It will also oversee the implementation of the collective agreement in our schools. Although Headteachers have a great deal of autonomy, they are not able to bypass or ignore a collective agreement between the Council and recognised trade unions.

We have always known that there are inequalities in our schools and our campaign has highlighted the extent of this problem across the county. TAs in different schools (and sometimes the same school) are doing the same job on very different grades but, as the Council do not hold details of individual TAs’ contracts and job descriptions, there is no oversight as to whether roles and levels are consistent. The Progression Board will be a forum where, in the future, we can raise such concerns. It will also carry out an audit of training needs as the lack of training specifically for TAs (in particular for teaching whole classes) was raised during consultations and school meetings.

You may have heard it would be better to leave Unison and join another union

Everybody has a right to join whichever union they choose. However, my personal opinion is that it is better to be in a union that is recognised by your employer to negotiate on your behalf. Then, if you are not happy with your union, get involved, become a steward, challenge them, put pressure on them and make things better. The phrase I have heard often during our campaign is ‘we are the union’. It shouldn’t just be a service to turn to in bad times or to get a discount on insurance, it should be our voice. If we want to be represented properly, we need to make sure they listen to us and the best way to do that is to get involved. How loud could we roar if every school had a TA steward?

You may have heard that we might as well have taken the first offer and not bothered fighting

The first offer meant that 100% of TAs would lose money and we would all have to work an extra 4.5 directed hours. Most of us said that the hours weren’t the issue as we regularly worked more hours anyway but the pay cut and the lack of recognition of the important part we play in educating the children in County Durham were a huge insult. By refusing 3 offers and taking 4 days of strike action we forced the Council to review our roles and responsibilities. This led to the majority of TAs being regraded to a higher grade: those that weren’t will now be looked at individually to see if they can be moved up to mitigate the loss of weeks.

Since the vote in July, we have shown that Durham is out of step with the rest of the country in having TAs below HLTA grade teaching classes on a regular basis and this has now been addressed giving opportunities to regrade many of those who teach classes but are not paid as HLTA. If we had accepted any of the previous offers, this would not have been the case and the pay losses would have happened as there would have been no opportunities to mitigate them.

Although the last 2 years have been immensely difficult and stressful for everyone involved, I will never regret fighting: we stood up to bullying tactics from our employer and apathy from our union and turned them both around. We have achieved a deal that is a significant improvement on the original offer with clear opportunities to improve it further. We have acted with courage, resilience and professionalism and are now in a position where the Council can and will be held to account by us and the wider public. There is still a lot of mistrust and anger and that is understandable but, whichever way TAs voted, we are united in wanting a solution that means nobody will lose money in January 2020.

And finally…

There has been a lot of talk, speculation and accusations about the motives for people voting to accept this deal. Here is the opinion of Bridget, a TA facing a pay loss who voted to accept.

“I am one of those 472 still set to lose. I am currently Enhanced Level 3 and teach full classes 3 afternoons per week, without support. I have done this happily for 6 years now. I received as much information as possible about the proposal. This resulted in me feeling reassured that the Progression Board will work with myself and other losers to mitigate my loss.”

A brief timeline of the dispute:

October 2015

Unison bulletin advising us of Council review on moving us to Term Time Only pay.

November 2015

Letter to all TAs from the Council telling us we would be paid ‘according to the hours actually worked’. For me, this meant working an additional 3 hours 36 mins (4.5 hrs if full time) for £1,722.40 LESS a year or £3,607.73 less if I stayed on the same hours. As The Council pay protection policy ‘does not apply to school based employees’ they proposed paying a one off compensation payment equal to the first year’s loss. 100% of TAs faced a pay cut.

February 2016

Council offered the same deal but phased in over 3 years, starting from September 2016. Schools would offer extra hours to mitigate some of the loss ‘where they had a business case to do so’. 100% of TAs faced a pay cut. Proposal rejected.

May 2016

57 Labour councillors voted to fire and rehire all 2700 TAs.
TAs receive S188 letter advising us that we would be dismissed on 31/12/16 and re-engaged on 1/1/17 on the new contracts. The pay loss and compensation would be the same as the Nov 2015 offer. 100% of TAs faced a pay cut.
Durham Trades Council got involved to offer support and advice.

June 2016

County Durham Teaching Assistant Activists Committee formed.

July 2016

700 Durham TAs march in the Miners’ Gala, the biggest collective of women to march and the biggest single contingent since the Miners’ strikes.

September 2016

Council amended offer to extend compensation to 2 years and put back implementation to April 2017. Proposal rejected by Unison & ATL TAs, accepted by GMB TAs by a narrow margin (53.5/46.5%).

October 2016

Received ‘Formal Notice of Termination of Employment’ along with new contract to sign.
Unison & ATL TAs voted overwhelmingly for strike action.

November 2016

Unison & ATL TAs held 4 strike days, closing many schools and causing disruption to many others. Over a hundred picket lines were organised across the county.
Local labour CLPs pass motions of support for TAs, increasing the pressure on the Council. This is after months of work by members horrified at the treatment of TAs but who have had to fight hard to gain support for motions criticising decisions by Labour councillors.

30th November 2016

Council announce suspension of sack and re-engage until September 2017 to allow for negotiations and a full review into the roles of Teaching Assistants.

December 2016

1st meeting of Project Board (for negotiations).

Jan-May 2017

Full review of TAs’ roles carried out, leading to new job descriptions and grading structure. Assimilation process takes place across all schools.

June 2017

New proposal giving details of new grade and how this will affect pay after 2 years’ compensation period. Council commits to a flexible approach to the additional hours, taking into account work done outside of school and outside of school hours. 22% of TAs still facing a pay loss.

July 2017

After TAs voice serious concerns about the new grading structure and the lack of options for mitigating the loss for those TAs still facing one, Unison and ATL TAs reject the proposal.

September 2017

New proposal with written clarification from the Council regarding the flexible additional hours, clarification that only HLTAs will be expected to teach whole classes (previously, level 3 Enhanced also taught classes) and a clear, written commitment to work with Unions, Headteachers and TAs to mitigate the losses still faced with the aim that nobody will lose any money at the end of the 2 year compensation period. This Proposal includes setting up a ‘Progression Board’ which will look at options to mitigate these losses as well as carrying out an audit of training needs and discussing other matters regarding the future of the profession.

October 2017

Unison TAs accept the deal (62/38%). ATL reject it by a narrow margin (56/44%). As ATL does not have negotiating rights, the new deal will apply to all TAs across the county. 

From Durham TAs blog


Here, teaching assistant Bridget Yuill explains why she voted for the new deal:

I am one of 472 TAs who are still set to lose after the latest offer from Durham County Council (DCC). Yet I voted to accept the deal, as did the majority of TAs last week.

Currently an Enhanced Level 3, I received as much information as possible about the newly negotiated proposal and feel reassured that the Progression Board will work with myself and others to mitigate our losses, recognising and ensuring my level of work is recognised through the correct grade and salary.

There are a variety of reasons why some TAs are losing pay, but it is not just down to Durham County Council (DCC ). Some schools, for instance, have appointed TAs on ridiculously low grades, so that TAs with differing grades work side by side doing the same job! This has happened for years and now is the time to rectify these inconsistencies through the Progression Board. The new offer also enables TAs to appeal against having been assimilated on too low a grade.

Some have criticised the latest deal, and I have previously been openly critical of both DCC and my union Unison. When in March I spoke in front of over 1000 people at our solidarity march and rally in Durham I expressed my discontent with both. And I felt angry and let down by Unison with the offer in June. But this deal is different.

Firstly, the priority of the Teaching Assistant Progression Board is to explore early solutions for staff who could potentially be financially disadvantaged; and secondly, Level 3 Enhanced TAs will no longer be expected to teach full classes to cover teachers’ planning time.

These improvements have been won by our union’s negotiating team, and thanks particularly to the two TA Unison Stewards, Helen Cook and Megan Charlton, who worked tirelessly to research and help create the proposal that was finally accepted.

There is still work to be done to ensure the early mitigation of potential losses by some of us. But the decisive ballot result, with 62% unison TAs voting to accept the improved offer, allows us to get back to normality and promises us that we will not lose out.

The bottom line is that this will not be a quick fix. But our magnificent campaign and strike action shows how a determined and unified struggle can win. And let there be no doubt that I and the rest of “The Lions of Durham” will hold DCC and Unison to account if these ‘mitigations’ do not follow.

As our Unison Regional Secretary Clare Williams says, “Now the Council needs to make good on their commitments to all Durham teaching assistants, and work with us to ensure this deal is implemented quickly and in full.”

Solidarity and peace to all Durham TAs.