South Tyneside Council is currently in talks with trade unions about changing the long-standing contracts of school support staff employed as nursery nurses for term-time only, which it says would bring the council in line with some other local authority areas.
If approved, the move would see employment contracts, some of which date back more than 20 years, of 100 support staff across 50-60 schools changed from 52 weeks of the year to 44. For those affected, it could mean losing £3,000 to £5,000 of their salaries, which range from £16,500 to £20,000.
Trade union Unison, which has branded the plans 'totally unacceptable', is leading a campaign against the changes.
Merv Butler, Unison's South Tyneside branch secretary, said, 'There is no need for changes. Because support staff are paid through school budgets, we expect only schools with limited resources to agree to the changes.'
Backing Unison's campaign is Labour MP for South Shields Emma Lewell-Buck and UKIP councillor Linda Hemmer for Fellgate and Hedworth in Jarrow.
Ms Hemmer, who has received letters from concerned school support staff, said, 'If the council presses ahead with the contract changes, it will result in hardship for a lot of affected staff, many of whom are the main or sole earners in their household.
'Some staff have indicated within their letters that they would have to give up their job if faced with losing such a lot of their salary. This loss of well-experienced qualified staff risks threatening the education of vulnerable children.'
A spokesperson for South Tyneside Council said, 'In response to requests from some schools we have started discussions with trade unions regarding support staff contracts in schools. These talks are aimed at offering schools scope to harmonise conditions of service for school support staff,which would also bring South Tyneside in line with other local authority areas. However, at present, no changes have been proposed to contracts.'
Jacqui Mann, managing director of HR4 Nurseries, said, 'The council can change the terms and conditions of contracts, but only through consultation. However, the council needs to prove that it has a good business case for changing the contracts.'
According to Unison, it will be up to schools' governing bodies and headteachers as to whether they approve changes to contracts of school support staff employed as nursery nurses.
A meeting between Unison and the council is scheduled for the end of the month.
CASE STUDY: DAWN TAYLOR
Dawn Taylor is an educational practitioner at Bamburgh School in Horsley Hill, South Shields, and a Unison steward.
She is one of 18 members of staff at the special needs school, for children aged two to 16, who would be affected by the changes.
The educational practitioner, who has been at the school for 13 years and holds a BTEC national diploma, says that if her contract were changed to pro-rata she would lose around £5,000 a year.
'There is no logical reason why the council would apply a term-time formula to the contracts of all school support staff across the borough.
'As a lot of us employed as nursery nurses are older, we thought the position would just be phased out.'
She said their salaries are justified because they have a lot of specialist knowledge, unlike teaching assistants who have trained for two years at college.
She added, 'Some nursery nurses are single parents with two to three children or are the main earners in their household. Those with mortgages have said they would have to sell their homes if the changes go ahead.
'Many of us would also have to consider taking on a second job to pay the bills.'