New comparison table about TA pay

A week ago I complained about the way in which councillors were rail-roaded into making a decision to approve the new Teaching Assistant pay offer. One of the points I made was about the lack of time for councillors to raise questions and get answers.

Despite that, with the teaching assistant workforce already undertaking its ballot, I have been continuing to seek to uncover the truth as best I can. The table below has been provided to me by the Director of Resources in response to a query in which I tried to find out what the total pay of the teaching assistant workforce would be (excluding pay awards but including the increments to which their grades would entitle them) in each of three scenarios:

  1. No change: i.e. with the current position where a relatively small number of TAs are on term time only contracts, paid only for contracted hours, and most are on the “annual salaried” contracts to which they had been entitled under the former collective agreement for TAs
  2. Under the latest (June 2017) offer, with all TAs on regraded structures and paid on 37 hour, 40 weeks per year contracts with their salary spread evenly over 12 months and with two years “compensation” to prevent any direct fall in an individual’s income for two years
  3. Under the latest (June 2017) offer, with all TAs on their regraded structure and paid on the 37 hour, 40 week per year contract with their salary spread evenly over 12 months but excluding  the two year compensation payments. I asked for this only to understand how the incremental structure was working

To be frank, I was surprised at how little saving (and that only in year three) there was to schools’ budgets. The total cost of the TA workforce changes very little under these proposals, though the pay of individual TAs varies dramatically.

These figures do not support the council’s suggestion that 78% are winners and only 22% are losers, or the implication that in general TAs’ pay is improving. What they do suggest is that, on average, there is no change.

This of course does nothing to allay the perfectly understandable fears and objections of those who stand to lose very significant amounts of money at the end of the two year period if promises to work with them to avoid such a loss are not, or cannot be, delivered.  Nor does it remove concerns about the new pay structure which, by abandoning certain grades, has created cliff edges for some TAs with the resulting serious pay losses. Those are both questions which I will continue to pursue.

What these figures do do, however, is to refute any suggestion that within this offer the council has made significant savings in its schools’ budgets. That is a long way from the £4 million reduction in overall payroll which the council said would have been the outcome of its original proposals eighteen months ago.

Individual TAs face a very difficult choice to make over the coming days.

Why councillors should not have rubber stamped the Teaching Assistant Deal until they knew the full details

I won’t have won many friends at County Hall yesterday by arguing that the decision on the TA deal should be delayed whilst councillors looked at the small print, but I make no apology.

The deal that is being offered is much better than the one that was to be imposed on TAs twelve months ago, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good enough.

I’m not naive, and I know that the council had to address the appalling mish-mash of contracts that it had issued to TAs over the last five or more years. Those contracts meant that some TAs earned massively less than some others who were doing exactly the same work on exactly the same pay grades. That is unequal and unfair. And I also know that school budgets could not stand lifting everyone to the level of the most favourable contracts, so that wasn’t a feasible way forward.

That’s why, if the council had offered a deal where the overall cost of the TA workforce remained the same as now, and was reallocated amongst TAs in a more equitable way, I would have backed it, unpopular though it would probably have been with those TAs who would have had to lose some pay in order that their disadvantaged colleagues received equal pay.

What is clear to me, however, is that the deal approved by Labour councillors does not provide that cost neutral solution.

On request, the Director of Resources provided me with figures that show that the total wage bill of teaching assistants on DCCs payroll is currently £36.3 million.

Leaving aside pay protection, the figure if they were were put onto the new grades today would be £34.5 million.

That’s a reduction of £1.8 million, or 4.5%.

That over simplifies the position, however, because changes to the grades that teaching assistants have moved onto can affect how many increments they can expect in the future, and will probably mean some improvement overall. I accept that, but haven’t got to the bottom of it yet, and that’s the crux of why I believe we should not have been asked to make a decision today on what we have not yet been able to evaluate completely.

Nor have we had the chance to weigh up exactly why some pay grades seem to have been abandoned completely for TAs in this process. The effect of that is critical for some people. If you were on a particular grade, and it has been abandoned, you are on a real cliff edge which will exaggerate the loss for anyone who cannot be lifted onto a higher grade. Moving to 40 week pay instead of 52 week pay means that just staying on the same grade ensures that you lose money. If that grade disappears, and you cannot justify being moved up one, you have to be dropped a grade which hits you with a double whammy. I believe that is why the losses to a relatively small number of TAs are dramatic and terrifying for them.

This cliff-edge has never been explained to councillors, nor the reasons why it has been introduced.

That was the second element of why I believed we should delay the decision. If you don’t understand the detail, you shouldn’t make the decision.

Outcome of this issue is now out of councillors’s hands again; it is in the hands of those teaching assistants who are in Unison. I do not presume to know what course of action they should choose when they are balloted, still less what they will choose. What I am sure of is that they need to pursue the fine details of the deal to make sure they know what they are choosing for both themselves and their colleagues.

 

Discouraging signal from DCC Labour

OK – DCC have suspended the dismissal notices and promised a review, but the tone at County Hall today suggested no change of heart towards Durham’s Teaching Assistants, just a change of tactic.

The response to the question about whether ATL (100+ TA members) would be included in negotiations was a straight “NO”.  But Unite (1 TA) member will be included!

The response to the question about what “new information” had emerged to trigger the review was effectively, “there is none”.

What was most disheartening of all was the tone of the occasion. Labour Party councillors behind me in the chamber shouted, “sit down” when I said that, unfortunately, the answer was what I expected. It was as if they believed I should have known that there was no change, and not had the folly to hope for better.

Later, worryingly, it also emerged that schools had had such late notification of the cancellation of strikes last week because Unison had had difficulty persuading their TA members not to strike. Clearly the TAs trust neither the council nor their main union which bodes ill for the future.

There is a possible way forward, but it will take courage and goodwill on all sides.

  1. Unison could call on Durham County Council to invite into the talks the union which has been “sister-in-arms” to them in their action, ATL, showing that they will put resolution of the issue ahead of any inter union rivalry.
  2. Durham County Council can accept that request, signalling that they will be treating this a negotiaton which falls outside the previous framework (they always said this issue had nothing to do with that framework).
  3. Together they can hammer out a framework which recognises that the structure of teaching assistant roles and functions in Durham is much wider than they had previously recognised.

A Freedom of Information request I put in to Newcastle City Council revealed that they have no fewer than no fewer than 10 kinds of Teaching Assistant posts, as compared with Durham’s 4.

Now looking at something like that really would give negotiators something to work with.

Teaching Assistants do teach. Don’t believe anything to the contrary

Nothing could be clearer to me. Today I met a Teaching Assistant who is the course leader and only teacher of a GCSE equivalent course in a County Durham Secondary School, a course which they themselves set up within the school. That’s teaching in anyone’s book. If anyone in the media wants to check this out – just get in touch with me.

The situation gives the lie to the Durham County Council claim that unqualified teachers (who are paid on a full-time basis) require “different skills and training” from Teaching Assistants. It also gives the lie to the sometimes crude attempts by some people to minimise the skill and professional competence of teaching assistants across the county.

Of course, the specific person and situation described to me was a relatively unusual case. But what is not unusual at all, what is routine in fact, is for Teaching Assistants to take whole classes on a regular basis, whether it is to cover preparation time for class teachers, to cover for teaching colleagues who are ill or attending courses, or just because they have particular knowledge, skills or enthusiasm in an area of the curriculum.

Equally skilled classroom support is essential for a range of children with special needs to survive within the educational environment. I have met a wonderful range of support provided to people with learning disabilities, visual or auditory impairment, autism, physical disabilities and a whole range of other elements which threaten their education, whether in mainstream or special schools.

That said, the account I heard today from this course leading, course teaching, Teaching Assistant brought home to me again today the folly of seeking to divide the education team in our schools. What we desperately need is for Labour Councillors (who are said to be in secret conclave on the issue on Saturday) to get a grip of this process and insist on officers and unions seeking a way forward which is cost neutral, complaint with equality legislation, and shows Teaching Assistants, children, parents, governors, and everyone in the county that they have the best interests of our children at heart.

It will almost certainly take some imagination, an element of carefully agreed re-grading, and very precise definition of the latest skill sets required of our teaching assistant workforce in its consistently evolving nature, skill sets unique to Teaching assistants and teachers. Achieving that would serve both their party interests and their constituents. Failing to seek it would be a dereliction of duty.

This morning’s TA debate

This morning council debated its new proposal to extend the period of compensation for loss of earnings to two years instead of one, provided that teaching assistants vote to accept the revised contracts which will reduce their pay by between 10 and 25%.

If the proposal had simply been to increase the compensation two two years, whether or not the new contracts were imposed, I would have voted for it. Something is always better than nothing. But we didn’t have the choice just to approve the improved protection. Approving that meant re-confirming the process of dismissing and then re-employing all the teaching assistants if they didn’t just meekly accept the offer.

I do not and will not support that process whilst the council has made no serious attempt, without swingeing pay cuts, to achieve a root and branch reform of their contracts to remove the inequalities which undoubtedly exist amongst the current teaching assistant workforce, where some members of the team are doing identical work as others, on the same hours, on the same pay grades, but receiving very different pay.

My argument for voting against the council’s proposal is set out below:

Chair,

I welcome one thing, and one thing only, about this revised offer; it proves false the council’s repeated claim that there was no alternative to its original proposal; so there was an alternative to the rapid escalation to an aggressive policy of “dismiss and re-engage”.

But there’s aggression again in today’s proposal. The offer of increased compensation, instead of being an olive branch, is actually a stick with which to threaten classroom assistants. If they don’t accept, the offer is withdrawn and the sackings go ahead. That is blackmail, pure and simple; transparent and ugly.

Recently the council has again stepped up its pressure on teaching assistants. In the last few days hundreds of classroom assistants have been leant on to sign up to extra hours if offered by their school. That’s even before the ballot has been issued for them to vote on this new “offer”.

The one thing we should have learned through this whole episode, however, is that this county has a talented, creative, resilient, and determined workforce of teaching assistants. Just the sort of people we need to help develop our children. Just the sort of people we should retain and reward.

Instead, as a council, we have angered and bewildered them. Our teaching assistants have been used to doing the same work and taking home the same monthly pay as colleagues in Newcastle and Darlington. They simply don’t understand why they are no longer worth the same as those colleagues.

We have a workforce who believe they were mis-sold their re-graded contracts in 2012, because they now know the council had no intention of honouring them into the future.

And we have a workforce who, whatever the outcome of today’s vote, whatever the outcome of their ballot, will be less motivated, less enthusiastic, and less prosperous than they have ever been.

It doesn’t have to happen. We could still find a solution to the inequalities which exist between teaching assistants in this county. If we based a proposal on exactly the same total cost across the workforce, so that schools neither profited nor lost by the changes, teaching assistants would almost certainly accept the changes required.

That’s why I shall vote against this proposal.

It is a piece of bare-faced blackmail which seeks to use teaching assistants’ financial vulnerability as a weapon to enforce submission to swingeing pay cuts.

Yesterday’s speech at Council

Six months ago Liberal Democrats called for this council to pause the process of slashing teaching assistants’ take home pay. We called for a thorough review of their position compared to others across the region. We wanted to examine the approaches taken by other councils and what room we had for manoeuvre.

You, the party in control, stopped that by a piece of political chicanery. A month later you summarily voted that review down.

That’s relevant because of paragraph 17 of this report which tells us that this council risks being judged in court on the process it has followed in deciding to dismiss 2,700 employees.
Just think about it.

I would expect a skilful barrister to make mincemeat of a council which sat on its hands year after year whilst it knew that it had unresolved equality issues, and then just six months later moved from complete lethargy to resorting to the nuclear option of dismissing a whole class of employees.

They will surely have a field day with the fact that in 2012 this council set pay grades for its teaching assistants below most neighbouring councils, and allowed that to be disguised by terms and conditions which they secretly planned to revoke at a later date. I say “secretly” because there is written evidence that the HR department fully intended to change Teaching assistants’ terms later, but deliberately omitted that from public reports.

And yet we are being urged that we “have to” take this action because of a legal opinion which this council has acquired.

I don’t accept that. Legal opinion led this council to resist a tribunal judgement of less than £60,000, and to end up with a bill of £1.5 million. Legal opinion led this council to lose a judicial review in Consett. The point is, legal opinion is just that. Opinion.

It is certainly not sufficient ground for us to desert a group of valuable, low paid, largely female employees who deserve our careful and deliberate consideration.

I and my colleagues will be voting against this recommendation, not as a vote for the status quo, but as a vote for a genuine pursuit of fairness, an exploration of all possibilities rather than forcing through a pre-determined position.

If Jeremy Hunt can have a Damascus Road experience, so too should our council leader.

Oppose the recommendation.

UNISON – Running with the Hare and with the Hounds

Thanks, all of you who have written in. I’m now 100% convinced that at least one Unison meeting was told that head teachers are behind the move to slash teaching assistants’ pay.

I don’t believe it.

None of us knows the exact truth of what has happened, but I am sure of some things.

I’m sure that the deal between the unions and the council to “park” the issue of classroom assistants’ contracts three years ago was kept hidden from councillors and governors.

I’ve been through the reports provided to council in 2011 and 2012. There’s no mention of it.

I’ve read every piece of governor information put out over the last three years, and I defy anyone to show me where it was flagged up.

OK, it’s true that schools will face pressure on budgets with rises in National Insurance and pension contributions. It is also true that school budgets would be eased if the proposals are implemented, and that means that some head teachers could find it helpful.

That’s not the issue for the heads I have spoken to, however. They have been far more worried about the demoralisation of their staff than anything else.

I am completely convinced that it’s not Head Teachers who have pushed for these proposals. It’s the county council’s Human Resources (HR) department at County Hall.

That begs the question. Why is UNISON trying to pass responsibility for this debacle onto head-teachers, rather than the county council?

Consider the facts. Unison’s branch Office is based at Room 32, County Hall. It certainly was, and probably is, rent free. The county council pays towards a number of union officials’ wages. Unison has a “durham.gov.uk” email. And Unison was amongst the Unions that agreed with the council to “park” the issue three years ago.

They’re not going to bite the hand that feeds them. They’re not going to highlight their part in “parking” the issue. How convenient to blame head-teachers and government cuts!

Just recently I’ve had a number of contacts from teaching assistants saying they just don’t know who to trust. And how can you blame them? If your own union is running with the hare and with the hounds you’re bound to feel lost and without hope.

The only hope left for these classroom assistants is that councillors from all parties will look at this issue and just “know” that something is very wrong. You don’t always need to know exactly what is right to know instinctively that something is wrong. For me, this is one of those occasions.

What have they got to hide?

Today I asked, for the second time, if Councillor Alex Watson and I could see the report which was issued to the Corporate Management Team (the Directors at County Hall) prior to the proposal to change teaching assistants’ contracts being sent out. The response was that they are “confidential.”

From this I learn two things;

  1. Papers exist setting out the real reasons for, and background to, these very harsh changes. A bit like the X files, “The Truth is out there”.
  2. These papers are not to be seen by ordinary councillors, let alone the public. We are just lobby fodder. You are just voters.

It’s a horror movie. Something frightening is happening, but forces out there want to keep you in the dark whilst, at the same time, demanding that you share responsibility for the outcome. They call it consultation.

With any luck Labour councillors, who have the power to roll this story back and start again, will be just annoyed as I am. With any luck they will decide that they are being taken for granted, being asked to take responsibility for a decision where they have never had the detailed logic behind it, nor the precise facts about how the same issues have been handled elsewhere.

They may even decide that this is the sort of thing where democracy demands that decisions are taken by the political leadership of the council, not its officers.

X Files

Durham’s Teaching Assistants hung out to dry

As many of you know, I used to be a teacher. I collected the usual flak about the long holidays, but never found people queuing up to take my job, holidays or not. I put heart and soul into it until I couldn’t bear having government (national and local) as my employer any more.

Perhaps that’s why I’m completely in sympathy with Durham County’s teaching assistants. Many of them put their heart and soul into the job, but the county council has just unleashed upon them its plan to slash their pay (20% is the region they are looking at). This time it’s not because of government cuts; the school grant originates from central government, not the county council, and has not changed. Apparently it’s to foster “equality” in County Durham. It has arisen because the county council has just noticed that teaching assistants get paid full time (like I used to) but don’t have any children to nurture and develop in school holidays. As a result the county council is now planning just to pay them for term times plus whatever holiday period it is forced to give them.

Actually I’m misrepresenting the council because it hasn’t just noticed. The council and the trade unions noticed a few years ago but chose to turn a blind eye when they did “job evaluation” across the county council. They did that so they could push a wider deal through with the rest of the workforce. Only now have they launched the assault on teaching assistant pay, leaving the teaching assistants alone and exposed.

So we have a Labour council slashing the pay of an entire section of the workforce, working in collusion with the unions to hide the issue until it suited them, and not even offering these employees the protection they offered to other workers in the job evaluation process. Eat your heart out, Jeremy Corbyn!

Actually the council will only be working with selected unions. For those teaching assistants who chose to join the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) there will be no representation at the negotiating table. The county council doesn’t recognise them for pay bargaining purposes!

The final irony is that the people who the county council and government love to claim are in charge of schools – school governors – have been the last to be told. School governors have employer responsibilities towards all their staff, but a letter from the council makes it clear that they had entered into consultation on their plan with the Trade Unions (UNISON, UNITE, GMB) before they had breathed a dicky-bird to governing bodies. The council is happy to send governors reams of information about everything under the sun, but there’s been no mention of this ticking bomb in the years they have been hatching this plan.

I’m incensed as a governor. I’m incensed for the children of this county whose schools will be thrown into discord and demotivation by these proposals.

In my view the council should drop the proposals immediately. Then they should get round the table with the chair of governors of every county school in Durham to discuss what the real issues are, and to work a way through them with an approach that teaching assistants can see is as fair as it can be made.

I’ve put down a motion for the next council meeting as follows: “This council calls upon its cabinet and officers to withdraw the current proposals under the Review of classroom based staff, and instead engage with school governing bodies and subsequently trades unions to address the issues it seeks to resolve.”

Watch this space to see how open debate is now fostered on these proposals!