In Consett, and across County Durham, this week teaching assistants have been on strike. Industrial action on Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th November had effects on over 100 schools, with 43 having to close. Durham County Council, however, said that more than 80% of its 243 schools had been able to remain open.
The strike action, by members of the Unison and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) unions, was triggered by a Durham County Council plan to change TAs’ contracts. The council would like to pay the TAs simply for the hours they work during term time and not for holiday periods. The TAs say this could lead to them losing 23% of their pay packets, or around £5,000 annually.
— Richard Marshall (@Richard_ATL) November 9, 2016
One union, the GMB, has accepted a compromise from the council in which the changes will be delayed for two years. But members of the ATL and Unison have voted by large majorities to strike. A Unison spokesperson said,
“The way teaching assistants have been treated is disgraceful. They regret any disruption to parents, but feel they have no other option.”
The council insist the salary cuts are necessary to avoid costly equal pay claims from other council workers, who are already hourly paid.
About 50 County Durham schools have been picketed. In addition to waving banners and placards, the picketing TAs were giving out leaflets to parents and explaining to them why they were on strike.
— Emma Parker (@mrsElParker) November 8, 2016
At Toft Hill School near Bishop Auckland, striker Lisa Shaw said, “This is absolutely not what we want to do. It is breaking our hearts, but if these cuts happen it is going to have a massive impact on, not just us, but also the children.”
“The parents have been really supportive and they see how much we care about the kids.”
Pierre Newton, picketing Aclet Close Nursery School, said, “Many years ago it was about helping out in classes and doing things like washing paint brushes. Now we have so much to do with intervention, such as behaviour and speech and language.”
“We are not going to stand back and take this. We are all passionate about working with children.”
“The responsibilities are massive and the children will be affected if the cuts are allowed to happen.”
County Durham’s parents seem supportive of the TAs, and some parents were picketing alongside the strikers. Ruth Blanchard, from Anfield Plain, said, “We want to show our support for the teaching assistants. I was ignorant to what they get paid before this – it has made me realise how little they get paid for all the hours they do.”
“They go above and beyond every single day and don’t get the appreciation they deserve.”
At Belmont Cheveley Primary School, near Durham, parent Heather Deagle commented, “I support them – I think it’s disgusting what has happened. It’s definitely something the parents are behind. I know for a fact the teaching assistants at this school work particularly hard.”
“My son has a mild form of autism and I don’t think that without them he could come to this school.”
John Hewitt, Durham County Council’s corporate director for resources, said the strike was “disappointing”. He added, “We appreciate and are grateful for the work of headteachers, governors and staff who kept most schools and classes open at what is clearly a difficult time, helping to minimise disruption for children and parents.”
“These changes are about bringing teaching assistants into line with all other staff at the council.”
“To do nothing risks many millions of pounds of equal pay claims, which would have a devastating effect on the services we can provide and jobs.”
The council said it had e-mailed both Unison and the ATL to say the door was open for more talks. Unison’s north east regional secretary Claire Williams, however, told a rally that further strike action was planned. Unison’s leader Dave Prentis said that a £150,000 hardship fund will be established to help striking TAs.