Teaching Assistants’ Strikes Broaden

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Teaching Assistants rally at the Durham miners’ hall, Redhills

Durham and Derby teaching assistants (TAs) have been taking strike action over the past month in defence of their rights and terms and conditions of work. These actions began with a 48-hour strike by TAs in Durham on November 8-9 in response to an attack on their pay amounting to cuts of as much as 23%.

The strikers, members of Unison and ATL, held a huge rally of some 1,200 TAs. “If Durham council underestimated the strength and passion of Durham teaching assistants, they won’t now,” declared Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis, speaking at the rally. “We will fight this pay cut and we will win.”

The TAs’ blog “Lions of Durham” explains:

“This is not action we are taking lightly but we have been forced into it by the Council’s refusal to discuss an alternative to imposing 23% pay cuts for working the same hours or 10% pay cut for working an ADDITIONAL 175.5 hours a year (many TAs are unable to work the extra hours or have not been offered them).

“Teaching Assistants are already low paid (particularly in County Durham) and we simply cannot afford to continue in our jobs while losing up to £4,600 a year. Our jobs will not have changed when we return to work in January: we will still be expected to mark, to plan, to support and, yes, to TEACH.

“Durham County Council like to refer to us as ‘non-teaching staff’ but anyone who has worked in a school or had a child in school knows that Teaching Assistants teach all of the time. Many years ago, we were Teaching Assistants; now we are Assistant Teachers. We teach 1:1, small groups, large groups and whole classes. When we teach whole classes, we mostly do it without any support (whereas teachers have a TA to support them).”

The Durham TAs further explain that they “have always been prepared to do whatever is needed to support the teachers, the children and their families. This has involved huge amounts of unpaid overtime spent planning, marking, preparing resources, taking children on trips, going on residentials.”

A further 48-hour strike took place on November 23 and 24. To fund this ongoing fight, the Durham TAs have set up a crowdfunding campaign, which has raised an impressive £36,268 at the time of writing:www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/CountyDurhamTeachingAssistants

This site outlines the history of the dispute:

“In Oct ’15 proposals were announced to change the terms and conditions of the contracts of employment for 2,700 Teaching Assistants. We have rejected 3 slightly varied proposals to date, offering only 1 year’s compensation for loss of income, and this could result in us being sacked on December 31, 2016 and reinstated on January 1, 2017 under new terms and conditions. These relatively low paid workers provide invaluable assistance to teachers and we strongly object to the way the need for these changes, under threat of inequality pay claims, have been presented by our employer.

“TAs have come together and after organising initial meetings, formed the County Durham Teaching Assistants Activists Committee (CDTAAC). Donations have begun to be received and we hope to fund legal advice and industrial action.

“The strength of feeling is such that 500 TAs attended a meeting at Redhills Miners Hall supported by Durham TUC and subsequently 800 TAs marched at the Durham Miners Gala gaining support from unions at a national level and from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

“The issue is difficult in terms of employment procedures. However, many TAs have 20-30 years in post, years that have seen several huge changes in the delivery of education to children across the board. The role of TA has developed into something much more akin to Teachers’ employment than that of a similar graded Business Administrator.

“CDTAAC represents TAs in all their varying circumstances. Being offered increased hours is an attempt to reduce the impact of contract changes but not all Heads can offer increased hours and not all TAs can suddenly accept more hours due to other commitments.

“Historically, we know our pay is for term time working divided equally by 12 months. At this point in time our employer is trying to say we are paid over the school holidays and to convert us to term time pay again, by reducing our paid weeks. Without taking the increased hours the loss adds up to 23%, or £4,000 in real terms.”

Similar cuts to TA pay in Derby have also led these education workers to take strike action. New contracts imposed in June mean some 2,700 staff losing a significant portion of pay averaging £300-£400 per month, and in some cases as much as 25%, or about £6,000 per year.

The TAs held a number of strikes in June and October and began a new round of action on December 14, with four days of strikes between then and December 20. The latest strikes were called after rejecting a derisory offer by the council to make a one-off payment of £2,000 to just one in ten of the affected staff. A further two days are planned for January 19 and 20.

Videos of their protests and details of their hardship fund can be seen on the Facebook page of the Unison Derby City Branch:facebook.com/UnisonDerbyCityBranch

These pay cuts are completely unjustifiable. It is clear from the direct experience voiced by the teaching assistants that they perform an essential role, a role that is itself ever-more crucial as a result of underinvestment in education.

These cuts arise from austerity in the form of a general slashing of funding to local government, which has been leading to cuts to social programmes across the board. Furthermore, cuts to education workers’ pay come in the context of an agenda of privatisation and a programme to go all-out to create a capital-centric school system; they are part and parcel of the neo-liberal wrecking of education.

The sheer scale of the pay cuts, potentially adding immense difficulty to these workers’ lives as it moves them firmly into the ranks of the low-paid, amounts to a tactic of shock and awe, and acts to marginalise the TAs: the decision amounts to imposition from which they are deprived of any say. In opposition, education workers demand a say over their conditions of work, to improve them and the system as a whole with increased investments.

It cannot be accepted that there is a lack of money for investment. The pay of these TAs is not a cost: they clearly add immense value to the economy along with the education system as a whole. Being forced to work in conditions of greatly reduced income, marginalised and deprived of a say, can only have a negative impact and be a true cost to the economy.

Sources: Lions of Durham blog, Unison, National Shop Stewards Network, various news reports.

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