The reality of budget cuts for many teaching assistants are proposed new contracts and a loss of up to £4,000 a year, says Megan Charlton

Teaching assistants may be the canary in the mine as staff face the fall-out from shrinking school budgets.

I was in contact recently with a teaching assistant (TA) in the Midlands, a nursery nurse for 30 years, who has been told her post is redundant and the only job available is a level 1, unqualified support assistant.

In May last year we received letters from the council telling us we would be sacked on New Year’s Eve

Her employers know that she will not “dumb herself down”. If she takes this job, she won’t suddenly start working in a different way. Faced with a child who needs her support, she won’t forget her years of training and experience; she will carry on working in the way she always has, doing
the best for the children and families she works with.

If she doesn’t take that job (and who would blame her?), how will they replace her with an unqualified, inexperienced support assistant? What effect will that have on the school, the teachers, the children and the families she works with?

Co Durham is another case. In May last year we received letters from the council telling us we would be sacked on New Year’s Eve and rehired on new contracts that would effectively put us on zero hours contracts during school holidays. The effect was that we would lose 23 per cent of our pay if we stayed on our current hours – or we could work an extra 4.5 hours a week and lose only 10 per cent. This amounts to a pay cut of about £4,000 for an experienced level 3 TA earning £17-£18,000.

We aren’t talking about cutting back on luxuries, for many people it will mean perhaps losing their house or being forced to leave their job.

Can anyone imagine this kind of deal being offered to teachers or to NHS staff? In our case, the workforce is 96 per cent female and the employers no doubt thought they’d get away with it because they see us as women working for pin money.

But sometimes you have to look outside your classroom and your school, because some things are too important to ignore.

The worst thing was battling fellow TAs

In Co Durham we felt intimidated; sometimes we were battling our headteachers, sometimes teachers, sometimes (and this was the hardest part) fellow teaching assistants who were so worried about the proposed cuts they thought we should accept the derisory offer of delaying the cuts for two years and calling it compensation.

The strength of our action led to our local (Labour) council suspending the forced implementation of new contracts and agreeing to a full review of our roles.

We have now completed a full review of the roles and responsibilities of TAs of every level in every educational setting across the county so that job descriptions match the jobs we do now – not the ones we did years ago when a classroom assistant washed paint pots and listened to readers.

Currently, human resources and union representatives are going into every school to see where TAs fit on to the new grading system. Once that is sorted, it will form part of a package that will be sent out to every assistant to tell them how they will be affected. We will then be balloted on the proposals.

When I see reports of the campaign against education funding cuts I see our fight but on a much, much bigger scale.

This fight is not just for ourselves. If experienced, skilled, dedicated support staff are forced out of their jobs because they can’t afford to stay, what is the future for our schools and the children in them?

And what if we win the fight for our pay only to find there are no jobs left because of the cuts?

Something is not right in education at the moment. So let’s all get up and fight, because together we are stronger and the more we fight, the stronger we become.

Megan Charlton is Teaching Assistants steward for Unison