Assistants deserve a better deal

The pay of support staff is scandalously low. They have been left with little choice but to take industrial action, says Christina McAnea of Unison

UPPORT staff in schools are currently being balloted about taking industrial action for better pay. Unison is campaigning for a Yes vote, as the 3 per cent offer will do little to improve the take-home pay of most of our members.

According to the annual NOP survey of local government workers, the groups most dissatisfied with their pay are nursery nurses, teaching assistants and school administrators. This is no surprise, as their pay has failed to keep pace with developments in their role. Teachers' pay has risen around 40 per cent since 1995. In the same period, pay for nursery nurses has risen by just over 20 per cent and for teaching assistants by 18.6 per cent.

In 1995, nursery nurses were earning 51 per cent of an average teacher's pay. By 2000, this had fallen to 44 per cent. In the same period, teaching assistants' pay, as a percentage of teachers' salaries, fell from 48 to 38 per cent.

There is no doubt that teachers deserved the increase in pay but now is the time to improve the pay of other staff. The irony is that this fall in relative and real pay has happened when, more than ever, support staff in education are central to the government's strategies.

The role of teaching assistants is evolving: most already deliver lessons to small groups of pupils, but they are increasingly being used to cover teacher absences. This can range from taking the class for 20 minutes to, in a small but significant number of cases, covering for several hours and longer.

There are advantages to schools, aside from the obvious financial ones (assistants earn around pound;5-pound;6 per hour, supply teachers around pound;20). The assistant, particularly in a primary school, knows the class, is familiar with lessons and has been involved in planning and preparation. At present, only a minority of schools use assistants to cover for teachers for extended periods. Indeed, only a minority of assistants would want or feel able to to do this.

But this area needs to be discussed. When, how long, and in what circumstances can teaching assistants provide cover? What training is needed and what about the financial rewards? What are the implications if assistants are involved in behaviour management, pastoral care, the planning and preparation of lessons, as well as delivering lessons and assessing children? We need to be clear about the areas of overlap between jobs.

Yet while these issues are moving rapidly up the agenda, we continue to have many teaching assistants in schools paid only pound;5 per hour.

As assistants become more important, the spotlight has been turned on low pay and lack of any career structure. Only last week at Unison's conference we confirmed our main aims: a career structure linked to national occupational standards; a national pay and grading framework; justice for term-time workers who do not get holiday pay.

While ministers are probably only interested in the first of these, we believe this cannot be a no-cost option and must lead to a national framework for pay and grading, requiring extra funding from the Government.

However, we must think carefully about how this is funded. If it is through the Government's Standards Fund - used to underpin key education priorities - it may be time-limited and therefore many schools will employ staff on short-term contracts. Also, if the money is not ring-fenced, how can we guarantee heads will use it to pay for support staff fairly?

Headteachers have told me they would rather employ 15 assistants on pound;8,000 per year than 10 on pound;12,000. This is fine if the aim is simply to increase the number of adults in the classroom regardless of what they do. But it cannot be justified if you want to ensure staff are well-trained, motivated and above all feel valued and committed to the school.

The Government must provide funds to let school staff develop their careers and earn more. Local education authorities must have a consistent policy on pay and conditions. But heads also have to make hard choices about budgets. If assistants are important this must be reflected in their pay: 3 per cent is worth around 15p per hour to low-paid workers. Industrial action is never an easy choice but sometimes it is the only one.

Briefing, 26

Christina McAnea is Unison's senior national officer for education staff

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