Saturday March 25 saw a County Durham Teaching Assistants national march and rally, Dawn Warcup was there to report
On the warmest, sunniest day so far in Durham this year, the crowds began to gather early, as supporters and organisations from around the country such as Derby, Bolton and Barnet, assembled to support the County Durham Teaching Assistants (TAs).
They have been locked in dispute with Durham County Council since last year because the council decided to cut the Teaching Assistants pay by 23%, paying them only during term-time and handing out redundancy letters on New Year’s Eve of 2015.
The council thought the teaching assistants would just accept the redundancy and that they could re-hire them under new terms and conditions. That’s where the council had not reckoned on the determination these brave Teaching Assistants AKA the Lions of Durham - most of whom are women - would show.
After hearing some inspiring speeches from teaching assistants and local independent councillors, I spoke on behalf of People’s Assembly North East. As a former teaching assistant of 11 years I spoke of how undervalued but rewarding the job is, how proud I am to have been a teaching assistant and how impressed I am that the Durham teaching assistants are sticking up for themselves and saying no to the council’s offers.
The north-east is famous for its trade union movement and the teaching assistants were very much encouraged in their dispute by the late Davey Hopper, president of Durham Miners’ Association, whose face was on the banner that led the rally.
As the huge march passed through Durham market place, through crowds of shoppers who cheered their support, I noticed we had joined it in a great place. There was a boy of maybe seven or eight chanting loudly: “Who are we? Durham TAs. What do we want? Fair pay. When do we want it? Now!!” I’m sure his voice was a whisper by the end of the day but, let’s face it, children are why teaching assistant jobs exist in the first place.
With toots of support from many passing motorists, the thousand-strong march finally reached the historic Miner’s Hall, Redhills, which reflects the rich heritage of the Durham Coalfield. I felt a pang of nostalgia as I walked in, as my own father had been a County Durham miner and the hall really demonstrates this past interest but also the present and future struggles of working class people.
The rally was opened and compered by teaching assistant Anne Richardson, then Alan Cummings, secretary of Durham Miner’s Association talked about the dispute and how it had not gone down at all well with the councillors at County Hall.
Lisa Turnbull, a teaching assistant of 27 years, received her redundancy on her 25th anniversary. She talked of how she’d been inspired by the children she worked with who, despite their young age, performed public speaking in London to crowds of over 300 people. Lisa mentioned her own father in the audience and received a standing ovation for her moving speech.
Clare Williams, Northern Regional Secretary of Unison, encouraged the teaching assistants to come together and stressed the power of collective action in the trade unions. Nicole Berrisford, Derby Unison branch secretary, explained that the Derby School Support staff had taken 67 days of industrial action since summer 2015 but have now got the deal that they asked for. Derby School Support Staff also got a well-deserved standing ovation.
Then came Niamh Sweeney, Vice President of ATL , who recognised the contribution teaching assistants make, encouraged parents to tell the council that teaching assistants are valued saying, “Get it sorted. Get it sorted, now!!”
Megan Charlton, secretary of the TAs’ strike committee, followed and she also received a standing ovation as she talked about the propaganda put out by the council, about the teaching assistants who got disciplined in their jobs early in the campaign and she praised the Labour CLPs who had put forward strong support from grassroots members.
Davey Ayre, a veteran campaigner and ‘honorary Teaching Assistant’, described the county council’s actions as ‘a bit over the top’ and then came Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of NUT who said teaching assistants are not about washing paint pots, they know what is going on in the classroom and often have better relationships with the parents than many teachers. He said Durham County Council now need to get behind the teaching assistants and move things forward to the government.
Daniel Kebede, Assistant Secretary of North Tyneside NUT, said that the council had underestimated the power of the Durham Lions and that they “Have bitten off more than they can chew.” He said there was no excuse for the pay cuts, that they were a political choice, encouraging the teaching assistants to keep up their fight, “When we stand together, our power multiplies.”
This message of collective action is the one I took away with me from the rally. Around 2500 teaching assistants have been affected, working in over 300 schools throughout County Durham. Let’s hope that ongoing negotiations lead to these Teaching Assistant’s jobs being regraded and the valuable contribution that they make in the classroom is finally recognised in their salaries.
One thing is for sure, they are not going to go away.