This week saw schools closed, or at least operating reduced classes, across County Durham as over 1000 teaching assistants went on strike. TAs from the unions Unison and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) staged the industrial action on Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th November.
Over 100 schools in County Durham were affected and 43 had to close. The council said that, overall, 80% of its 243 schools had managed to stay open.
— TAsDurham(Official) (@TAs_Durham) November 9, 2016
The dispute centres on a plan by Durham County Council to only pay TAs 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 salaries, which would work out at about £5,000 per year.
The council maintain the pay cuts are necessary to avoid expensive equal pay claims from other employees who are already paid simply for the hours they work. One union, the GMB, agreed to accept a compromise in which the changes would be delayed by two years. But members of Unison and the ATL voted overwhelmingly to strike.
Around 50 of the county’s schools saw picket lines of striking teaching assistants. As well as holding their banners and placards, the TAs were handing out leaflets and talking to parents about why they were on strike.
— Di Franklin (@smokiebeau) November 8, 2016
Lisa Shaw, on picket duty at Toft Hill School, near Bishop Auckland, 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, who works at 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.”
The reactions of the county’s parents seem to have been very much in favour of the TAs, with some parents actually joining the strikers on their picket lines. 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 and all the extra hours they do.”
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. They never seem to stop.”
Durham County Council, however, described the strike as “disappointing”. John Hewitt, the council’s corporate director for resources, said, “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. We will work with schools to mitigate any further disruption.”
Mr Hewitt added, “These changes are about equal pay, not about cuts or austerity, and bringing teaching assistants into line with all other staff at the council.”
“We appreciate this is an emotive subject, but it is not one we can ignore. 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 the striking unions to say the door remained open for talks. Unison’s north east regional secretary Claire Williams, however, told a rally that more industrial action was planned.