I've been thinking a lot about teaching assistants this week.
As my Twitter followers might know, I've been tweeting about the Durham TAs and following the striking Derby TAs and generally, reflecting upon how badly we treat our school support staff. As a former teaching assistant myself, they have my total support.
However, I know not everyone is so supportive, particularly those who don't understand the nature of the job nor the context of the dispute.
The argument that I keep hearing is this: "Why should TAs be paid for not working? I'm not." "It's not fair. I don't get 13 weeks paid holiday!"
So let me try and explain the position of these teaching assistants.
In certain local authorities, but namely Durham and Derby, councils are implementing an Equal Pay Review - the national Single Status Agreement. This is designed to standardise pay and conditions. The exception to this is teachers, who have their own nationally agreed pay and conditions document, youth workers and (surprise, surprise) the chief officers and directors.
This month, after Derby Council failed to negotiate with unions, it forced staff to accept a huge pay cut (UNISON figures suggesting £300-400) by sacking them. Derby TAs were then forced to accept the reduced wage, as the only option to get their job back was to become re-engaged on the new contract. The same fate is to befall 2700 Durham TAs. The council believe this represents fairness.
The trouble is, because teaching assistants' situation is not at all like other council employees' and because they will never earn enough for this to result in any reasonable living salary, it is not at all "equal" or "fair".
All this has happened because full-time TAs are on a contract working 32.5 hours a week (the time of school hours) but the council is now saying that full time for EVERYONE is 37 hours. So, as you're suddenly part-time, along with the lower financial status that comes with this, you're now paid pro-rata, which means a big drop in salary. But most TAs will happily work 37 hours and would like to be paid for those hours.
Teaching assistants don't want money for nothing. If the school is open, they are there, working hard. A support staff survey from the ATL revealed that 78% said they regularly worked overtime, with 44% saying they put in up to three extra hours and 12% do seven hours or more extra time per week. Only 11% said they get paid for these additional hours. There is a huge culture of above and beyond amongst TAs. We know they get exploited. The "unfair" part, rather, is that TAs suffer low status, heavy workload, insecure or zero hours contracts and now, the contracts that they are being given are an insult to their dedication and professionalism.
Teaching assistants are told that, because of the school holidays - again, when they cannot help that the school is shut- they cannot be on a 52 wk working contract- they are now to be employed only in term-time. This does not, and has never meant they have had "free holiday money": their salary is divided by 12. Many now have had that salary cut by 20-25%.
And let's make it clear: schools have not been forced to close, as some news has reported "because of the actions of union members", but because of the actions of their councils.
They would never do to teachers what they have done to TAs, but TAs are an easy target. These staff signed a contract to accept a certain wage for a certain job. Along with any salary, comes living within your means. Imagine then all of a sudden, someone takes a big chunk of your salary away and now you can't pay the mortgage anymore.
As usual, the execs remain unaffected. These TA roles exist only to provide care and support for children in schools who really need it, many of whom have profound and multiple needs. But for councils, such people are low-priority. Many have served their community for decades of service yet earn the same as newbies. It will drive skilled, trained staff either into poverty, having to claim state assistance, or into seeking employment elsewhere.
This is not in any spirit of equality. It is certainly not in the interests of equality for women, because the percentage of women in our support staff workforce, in Durham, in Derby and elsewhere, is always in the nineties. It's also an act of inequality towards the minority of staff who are men, as the few male role models we have in our school are invaluable, especially for our boys, many of whom idolise them. But if the job is paid at a level where the only people who can afford to do it are those who are young people living at home, we will drive many full-time male support staff from our schools.
In a society where your salary is supposed to dictate your worth, we are sending the message that school support staff are worthless. Teaching assistants don't earn a lot of money. I do need to point this out, because I once had a Head of Department incredulously tell me they'd been told that an experienced TA was only earning around £800 a month.
"That's below minimum wage, so no, she can't do...." But she can, and here's how.
Because my local authority have had this Single Status agreement for years. And it's awful.
The pay is embarrassing: take it from someone who's embarrassed about it. People can barely live. But I'm not angry at other workers that for all the time I've been paid much less, other support staff in other local authorities were being paid for 37 hours, 52 weeks. I'm angry that I've struggled for all those years that I was a TA, and now it's happening to others across the country.
So, really, I don't see why anyone else should get to be angry that these workers want better for themselves. We should want everyone to have better pay and conditions, not everyone to have worse, sneering, "If I can't have it, nobody should." We should want a precedent for the better to be set.
Please give our TAs, wherever they are and whatever contract they're on, your support and solidarity and above all, your appreciation. They're always supporting our children and now it's time to support them.