Durham teaching assistants vote to strike over pay

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Nearly 1,000 teaching assistants in Durham have voted overwhelmingly to strike over plans by Durham County Council to cut their pay, which will see some lose nearly a quarter of their wages next April.

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Durham teaching assistants took part in a demonstration over plans to cut their pay last Friday (28 October)

The long-running dispute relates to Durham County Council’s changes to TAs’ terms and conditions as it moves them to term-time- only contracts.

There are around 2,400 TAs employed by the council, and around 950 have voted to strike. Members of Unite and GMB have accepted the council’s offer.

TA members of unions Unison and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, a largely female workforce, have been balloted on whether to take industrial action.

Unions say that the proposed changes mean TAs would either be working longer hours for a 10 per cent pay cut or working the same hours and that some of them could lose up to 23 per cent of their salary – around £5,000 a year. 

They claim that TAs in Durham will be some of the lowest paid in the north east and several thousand pounds worse off than their counterparts in neighbouring local authorities.

However, the council disputes this. It says that it has no other choice but to follow all but one other council in the North East and many nationally which already pay teaching assistants for term-time-only.

The council has sent dismissal notices to all TAs in unions that did not accept the revised offer. It plans to re-employ its TAs on new terms and conditions from 1 January.

Unison balloted 1,755 teaching assistants and 93 per cent of those that took part backed strike action.

ATL represents 122 TAs in Durham. Eighty-four per cent voted to strike on a 61 per cent turnout. The union said it would co-ordinate any strike with Unison, and that it will make sure it causes as little disruption to children’s education as possible.

The ballot by members of ATL follows the rejection in September by 84 per cent of the union’s TAs to the council’s plans to give them two years’ compensation for the loss of salary if they agreed to move to term-time only contracts.

Trish Fay, a teaching assistant in Durham, said, ‘We are overworked and very much undervalued. Sadly, striking is the only option left now to persuade Durham Council to change its mind as I cannot afford to do the same stressful job, working the same 32.5 hours with £320 a month less in my salary.’

This week TAs have been holding a daily ‘silent vigil’ outside County Hall in Durham and held a demonstration on Friday (28 October).

Richard Marshall, ATL's organiser for Durham, said, ‘ATL teaching assistant members have rejected Durham Council's proposals until it comes up with a fairer offer.

‘Teaching assistants are not asking for more pay, just to keep being paid the same amount for their work. To add insult to injury, Durham County Council has adopted aggressive tactics by offering different levels of “compensation” for changes to contract depending on which union TAs belong to and whether they have agreed to revised terms and conditions. 

‘Durham TAs will become some of the lowest paid TAs in the north east, earning up to £5,000 less than colleagues in neighbouring authorities.’ 

ATL regional official Ken Smith, told Nursery World that there were large disparities in pay between Durham TAs and those in nearby authorities.

For example, he said that the lowest paid level 3 TA in Durham earns £16,772 a year, compared to a TA on the same pay grade in Stockton-on-Tees and Newcastle, who earns £20,135 a year, a difference of £3,363.

However, the council disputes this and has sent Nursery World copies of recent advertisements for Higher Level teaching Asssistants to demonstrate this. An HLT temporary post was advertised by Durham County Council at £19,939- £22,434 pro-rata.  An HLT in North Tyneside Council was advertised at between £18,825- £21,201 a year.

Trish Fay, a teaching assistant in Durham, said, ‘We are overworked and very much undervalued. Sadly, striking is the only option left now to persuade Durham Council to change its mind as I cannot afford to do the same stressful job, working the same 32.5 hours with £320 a month less in my salary.’

Dr Mary Bousted, ATL's general secretary, said, ‘We urge Durham Council to get around the table and negotiate a fair deal for its teaching assistants. It is not too late to do so. No employer should expect its employees to accept working more for less pay. 

‘If Durham Council pushes ahead with these pay cuts many teaching assistants will no longer be able to afford to work in schools and children will lose out. When schools are struggling to find teachers, it seems crazy to lose teaching assistants as well because of ill-thought through and deeply unfair changes.’

Unison northern regional secretary Clare Williams said, ‘We’re disappointed at the council’s decision to treat Unison teaching assistant members worse than their colleagues.

‘Teaching assistants are essential in the classroom and to devalue them in this way is unacceptable. Parents and teachers understand their worth, it’s a pity the council does not.

‘This decision to move to industrial action hasn’t been taken lightly. But with employees facing massive pay cuts, they have been left with no other option. Durham council must do the right thing and get back around the negotiating table.’

The council said it had undertaken more than a year of negotiations with staff and unions, doubled the compensation offered to cover two years, offered to delay implementation of the changes, and worked with the unions and ACAS to resolve the situation.

Margaret Whellans, Durham County Council’s corporate director of children and young people’s services, said, ‘From the outset we have been clear that no one wants to be in this position but that the legal advice is that we face a substantial risk of equal pay claims and we have no other choice than to follow all but one other council in the North East and many nationally which already pay teaching assistants for term-time-only.

‘We greatly value our teaching assistants and that’s why we have done everything possible to minimise the impact of these changes on them, however we must pay staff only for the hours they work.’

She added that the council had been recruiting on the new terms since June 1 and no recruitment problems have been experienced resulting in all vacant posts being filled.

‘Throughout this process we have recognised the need for people to be treated as individuals and assisted teaching assistants and headteachers on options regarding regrading but this is a matter for the individual TA and their school.

The council said that the majority of teaching assistants had not voted to strike. 

‘Our final offer was accepted by two unions, but Unison members voted to reject it. We have respected the outcome of these ballots, and offered compensation accordingly, and it is disappointing to be criticised for doing so.’

 ‘The education and wellbeing of our children and young people are our primary concern looking ahead and we will need to continue working closely with headteachers and school governors to help them mitigate the impact of any strike on pupils.’

  • This article was amended on 1 November.
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