Teaching assistant, support staff or learning support worker. Titles vary but the role is the same - working alongside teachers to help children learn. It's a job that most people value, but it has never been well paid and two national grading reviews are causing a mixture of confusion and resentment in the school support community.
"Employers are handing out new grades with one hand and then pulling the money back by reducing our members' working year," says Christina McAnea, Unison's education officer. "It's being done in a draconian fashion.
Members are being asked to accept all the new responsibilities with no increase in pay."
Ruth Ellis works with a child with Down's syndrome, Tracey Males supports children with special needs, as does Fay Lawson, who juggles that job alongside working as the cleaner-in-charge at the school. The three learning support staff work at Kirk Hallam technology college in Derbyshire, where assistant principal Yvonne Greenwood refuses to consider a world without support. "We value our support staff, she said. "The college could not function without them."
Kirk Hallam employs 64 support staff, including a business manager, learning support assistants, teaching assistants and cleaners. In the past the national employment situation for school support staff like these has been chaotic. There have been a plethora of training qualifications, but no agreed national structure. There was no agreed career structure either, and pay varies widely from one local authority to the next.
In some urban authorities qualified learning support staff have been able to earn up to pound;20,000 a year. At the opposite end of the spectrum some classroom assistants in rural areas are earning below pound;6 an hour; less than a sixth-former would earn working in a McDonald's.
At Kirk Hallam learning support staff are on a 52-week contract. The school has supported professional development, encouraging their support staff to take the new level 3 NVQ (caring for children and young people). This allows people to move up to the learning support assistant scale. Classroom assistants without the NVQ are paid term-time only.
Unlike teachers, school support staff, whether office or classroom based, have always had their pay rates determined locally. People are placed on the national scale for local authority employees, but exactly where they appear on that scale has been determined at county hall, or in some schools by the governing body.
But changes are afoot. Workforce remodelling for teachers has resulted in a big increase in workload and responsibility for school support staff. The workforce agreement included a recognition of the need for a career structure, and a four-grade system was negotiated with the unions. One by one most local authorities are introducing it.
In Derbyshire, this has created opportunities for the new higher level teaching assistants to earn nearly pound;20,000 a year. Learning support assistants like Ruth Ellis and Tracey Males will be graded at levels 2 or 3 depending on their experience and job description. Level 2 in Derbyshire begins at Pounds 14,244, while the top point of level 3 is pound;16,968.
At this point it should be stressed that these are Derbyshire's pay scales.
Other local authorities might decide to put a level 3 worker at a higher point - or a lower one. This is because there has been a national agreement about the four grades, but actual salaries are still decided locally. In Birmingham, for example, the higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs) are the top of the scale and can earn pound;22,000, pound;4,000 more than a qualified teacher.
So the news looks positive. School support staff now have a national agreed grading structure, there has been a huge improvement in the training situation, and the new HLTA grades offer a professional salary commensurate with the job's responsibilities.
So why are school support staff in half a dozen local authorities considering industrial action? In Brighton, classroom assistants and learning support assistants have already taken two days of action and their dispute is being overseen by Acas, the Government's mediation service, with binding arbitration to determine the outcome.
In Cheshire, unions and management are deep in negotiation, with the letters pages of the local papers full of anguished complaint from support staff, who believe they are being treated badly. Hull and Bolton also have simmering disputes that could erupt into the headlines at any moment.
At the core of many of the disputes is the employers' worry about finding the money. For many school support staff the new grades - if they genuinely reflect their qualifications, experience and job description - could see a massive increase in salary. Some learning support assistants with the level 3 NVQ could see their annual pay jump by several thousand pounds.
This process has been exacerbated by a document called the Single Status Agreement. In 1997, the National Joint Council for Local Government Services agreed the single status deal. The employers agreed to meet concerns about equal pay by carrying out a wide ranging review of local authority rewards. Jobs were evaluated and compared with others to ensure that people were being paid similar salaries for similar work.
The problem for the employers is that school support staff were found to be doing work and carrying responsibility far above their pay grade. So when employers attempt to implement the new national four-grade structure they have to place support staff at a point on their local scale that recognises the actual work being done. Failure to do this puts them at risk from equal opportunities claims, and the support staff unions have made clear their intention to use equality legislation to force through the best deal they can for their members.
The result is that cash-strapped local authorities are giving the money with one hand and attempting to claw it back with the other.
In Cheshire, classroom assistants and learning support assistants working 32.5 hours a week are classed as full-time and are paid for 52 weeks of the year. But under the new deal being offered by the council, assistants will be classed as part-time and will not be paid during school holidays.
Similar deals are on negotiating tables all over the country. For many learning support staff the result is a pay cut, with a reduced pension entitlement added to the equation.
And Kirk Hallam? Are Ruth Ellis, Fay Lawson and Tracey Males threatened by the same kind of "heads I win, tails you lose" agreement? Perhaps not. But Derbyshire's position paper says that the county's "review and consultation did not consider or address the contractual and conditions of service issues which arise from the Single Status Agreement".
So the Kirk Hallam support staff will have to wait and see.